And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, “Is it thou, thou troubler of Israel?”
And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed the Baalim” (1 Kings 18:17-18).
There had been three difficult years in Israel. The rain had been withheld; crops died, and people throughout the land went hungry. The people and the land were in great distress.
But what was behind the drought? Why did the rains cease? The reason is made evident in Scripture: Elijah the Tishbite, the great prophet, prayed to God, and it did not rain (1 Kings 17:1, James 5:17-18). The rain would not return until it was done by his word.
King Ahab is quite aware of this– it is precisely what Elijah had said to him. Therefore, in his mind, the matter is easily settled– Elijah is the culprit and the reason for the distress. Ahab sought Elijah in every surrounding nation (1 Kings 18:10). As the drought and thus the famine worsened the greater the blame was placed on Elijah. He became a very effective scapegoat. Therefore, when Elijah finally presents himself before Ahab, Ahab calls Elijah the “troubler of Israel.”
In all of this, however, the most important question is not asked. Why did Elijah pray to withhold rain in the first place? Is he some malevolent person who seeks the ruin of Israel? Hardly! Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the people of Israel astray, inducing them to serve the Baals and to not give YHWH the LORD His honor (1 Kings 16:30-33). Elijah needed to make a grand demonstration of who was really the true God, and this demonstration begins with the withholding of rain. Baal, after all, was the Canaanite god of fertility. If Baal was really a divinity, and if Israel should really honor and serve him, would he not provide them rain when they rendered him the appropriate service? And yet for three and a half years there was no rain. The Power behind Elijah the Tishbite was far greater than the Baals.
1 Kings 18:19-40 will feature the public humiliation and then execution of the priests of Baal, and the Israelites will confess again that YHWH is God. And then in 1 Kings 18:41-45 Elijah will pray and rain will fall upon Israel again.
The real “troubler of Israel,” then, is Ahab, for he was found impious before God and led God’s people Israel astray. But that is not the answer Ahab wanted to hear, and it is certainly not the answer that Ahab (or Jezebel) wants Israel to hear and believe. Thus Elijah feels compelled to go on the run for his life, a justified scapegoat, but a scapegoat nonetheless (cf. 1 Kings 19:1ff).
Such scapegoating happens all too often. When problems arise, for whatever reason, people want to find someone to blame. No one ever wants to blame themselves– therefore, they find a scapegoat, someone upon whom the burden of blame and responsibility is placed. Elijah is seen as the reason for the drought here, even though the real reason is the idolatry of Israel. In the days of the Roman Empire, whenever a famine, earthquake, or plague ravaged the land, the Christians would be blamed. Assigning blame and scapegoating happens to this very day. Sometimes the people who are blamed deserve the blame. Many times the blame goes well beyond the original misdeed. And there are plenty of times when there is really no one to blame, but someone has to take the heat anyway.
But the most pernicious circumstances are those when the truly guilty parties work hard to shift the blame onto the innocent parties, as Ahab does with Elijah. Not a few times have the righteous found themselves in great persecution and distress as the ungodly work to absolve themselves of the responsibilities of their actions. It is quite unjust, but we can be sure that God will execute justice (cf. Romans 2:5-11, 2 Timothy 4:14)!
We will find ourselves in the mist of circumstances when two parties blame each other for the situation in which they find themselves. It is always easier to shift blame than to accept blame. That is why we must diligently make sure that we are not the “troublers” of the family, the church, the workplace, etc., and that we do not justify the “troublers” at the expense of those who are trying to do the right thing. Let us judge righteous judgment and act responsibly!
Ethan R. Longhenry