The Final Promise

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6).

Malachi’s last words provide one last promise and warning to Israel. They comprise the final words of the Old Testament in English; even though they have different placements in Hebrew and Greek, they remain the final words spoken by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for four hundred years. God promises that Elijah will return before the great Day of YHWH comes; he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, or the land will be cursed (Malachi 4:5-6). But why Elijah? And what is this about turning hearts of fathers and children?

Elijah’s story is told primarily in 1 Kings 17:1-2 Kings 2:12. YHWH raised him as a prophet in the dark days of Ahab and Jezebel when Baal service was ascendant. Through Elijah God withheld the rain, raised the dead, contended with the prophets of Baal, displayed God’s power before all Israel, and condemned kings for their malfeasance. Yet Elijah was in despair over Israel’s unfaithfulness; he was sure he alone was left to serve YHWH (1 Kings 19:1-14). Toward the end of his time on earth it did not seem that Elijah was all that successful; Ahab’s family still reigned and Baal service remained popular. Then God took Elijah up to heaven with chariots of fire and gave Elisha a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (1 Kings 2:1-12). In Elisha’s day the victory would be complete: Ahab’s descendants would be executed, Jezebel would die, Baal service would be exterminated, and both YHWH and Elijah His servant would be vindicated (2 Kings 2:13-10:27).

Elijah’s story should inform our understanding of Malachi’s prophecy. Since Elijah did not die, many Israelites no doubt heard Malachi’s prophecy and expected God to send Elijah back down from heaven. In the eyes of Israel, Elijah embodied the prophets; they would understand that Malachi prophesied the return of the prophetic message to Israel before the Day of YHWH came, the great day of expectation of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel as told by all the other prophets. If Israel were to need such a prophetic message, it must mean that at that time many in Israel would again prove unfaithful to God, just as in the days of Elijah, and would need to have their heart returned to YHWH and His purposes, the Law of Moses, and concern for property and inheritance, or God would again have to curse the earth, either with drought, as in the days of Elijah, or perhaps even worse.

Whereas Malachi’s words in Malachi 4:5-6 are the final promise of the end of the Old Testament, the same words represent the first hope and fulfillment of the New Testament. The angel Gabriel visited Zechariah the priest and told him he would have a son in his old age: this son would go in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient in the wisdom of the just (Luke 1:1-17). In those days many in Israel were despondent: some were tempted to abandon the ways of their fathers and become as Greeks, some considered themselves as sinners who were beyond redemption, and some claimed to be superior to everyone else on account of their holiness and knowledge of the ways of God. Into this environment the son of Zechariah, John the Baptist, came as the prophet proclaiming the coming of the Day of YHWH, proclaiming a message of repentance, exhorting all Israel to turn from their sins and back toward YHWH and His purposes (Luke 3:1-18).

John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:14, 17:10-13/Mark 9:11-15). He would be imprisoned and executed by Herod Antipas, and at the time of his death, it did not seem that he was all that successful (Matthew 14:1-12, Luke 3:19-20). Yet he had baptized one Jesus of Nazareth, whom God attested was the Christ (Matthew 3:13-17/Luke 3:21-22). This Jesus was the Immanuel, God with us, and He brought forth the Day of YHWH, first in His death, resurrection, ascension, and the inauguration of His Kingdom, and then in His vindication as the Son of God as the land of Israel was again cursed with death and destruction with the Roman devastation of Jerusalem in 70 CE (cf. Matthew 1:22-23, 24:1-36, Luke 23:1-24:53, Acts 1:1-2:41). John the Baptist, the one who came according to the final promise of the Old Testament, was the final prophet of the old covenant (Matthew 11:7-14). Yet he saw the embodiment of the hope and sustaining message of the prophets in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus God would restore the fortunes of Israel (Acts 3:19-21). In Christ God would reconcile not only all Israel but all mankind to Himself (Ephesians 2:1-18). In Jesus the Christ YHWH came so all Israel and all mankind could have the opportunity to come to a knowledge of the truth, be saved, and look forward to the day of resurrection, to never taste death again, just like Elijah (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Let us be ever thankful that God proved faithful to His promises, and serve Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, who fulfilled all the prophets said of Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Futility of Idols

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead, said unto Ahab, “As YHWH, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Here we have the moment that James describes in James 5:16-18: Elijah, prophet of God but still a man with a nature like ours, prayed to God, and it did not rain for three and a half years. such is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer, proving that God can do amazing things when His people devote themselves to prayer and righteousness.

Yet there certainly is a dark side to this prayer– Elijah has just consigned the land and its people to drought for three and a half years. A drought means no rain, and when there is no rain, crops fail. When crops fail, there is no food. When there is no food, people starve, suffer, and die.

We might feel inclined, through the lens of “modern sensibilities,” to think of this as utterly merciless, cruel, barbaric, and inhuman. What kind of prophet is Elijah to consign his people to famine and death? What kind of God would withhold rain and thus lead His people to starvation and death? Or, in less judgmental terms, why is it that Elijah prays for it to not rain as opposed to praying for some other demonstration? Why does God punish Israel with a lack of rain as opposed to some other calamity or difficulty?

In order to make some sense of this we must understand what is going on at the time. Elijah has been called by God– whose personal name is YHWH or “Yahweh”– because Ahab king of Israel is exceedingly wicked (1 Kings 16:30). He and his wife Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, have rejected YHWH in favor of Baal, Asherah, and the Canaanite gods (1 Kings 16:31-33). Israel followed along in this apostasy.

Baal, in the Canaanite belief system, was a storm god and a fertility god. Baal was believed to provide the storms that led to crop growth and thus fertility. Baal is in a contest against Mot, the god of death; when Baal wins, there is fertility; when Mot wins, there is famine and death. Much of the belief system of the Canaanites surrounded the idea of fertility, both in crops and in child-bearing.

We should not imagine that God or Elijah really want the people to suffer for suffering’s sake. Instead, a powerful lesson is being taught: the gods of the world are emptiness and nothing. During the drought, no doubt, Ahab and Jezebel constantly sacrificed to Baal and plead for mercy from him, along with many of the Israelites. During the contest on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal plead with Baal, even cutting themselves in the process (1 Kings 18:26-29). Yet, as the Kings author says, “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (1 Kings 18:29). Baal was not there– because there was no Baal.

Afterward YHWH demonstrated His existence powerfully with fire from heaven and a return of the rains (1 Kings 18:30-46). The lesson was evident: YHWH was God, not Baal. YHWH is responsible for the rains and fertility, not Baal.

This was not the first time YHWH had made such a demonstration; the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus 8-12 are also demonstrations that YHWH, and not the gods of the Egyptians, is really in control. It’s a demonstration with which it is hard to argue: if you believe that Ra is the sun god, but at the command of YHWH the sun turns to darkness, and your pleas to Ra change nothing, then it is clear at least that YHWH is stronger than Ra if Ra even exists. It is only when idols are dethroned that people really reflect on the power of the One True God.

We should not think that we are much different today. Granted, we do not have many people going to temples and bowing down to statues of perceived divinities as was prevalent in Biblical times. But that does not mean that we have solved the challenge of idolatry– far from it (1 John 5:21)! Our idols are just more abstract. And we still need powerful demonstrations of their ultimate inefficiency and inefficacy.

For generations money has been an idol (Matthew 6:24, Ephesians 5:5). It is easy for people to trust in their material goods– their stuff, their bank accounts, their investments, and even their government’s entitlement programs. And yet what was powerfully demonstrated during our great recession? Wealth is uncertain, and cannot be trusted (1 Timothy 6:17)! Government is proven to be uncertain and ultimately not entirely trustworthy; stuff also cannot bring satisfaction. Health, status, prestige, relationships, fame, the Internet, science, you name it– all of them are really subject to the One True God, and in and of themselves, cannot save, and cannot be entirely trusted. Unfortunately, all too often, we only perceive this after they have been rendered ineffective and inefficacious in our lives. It is only in crisis do we learn that we need to rely upon God and not the gods of the world.

If we want to avoid needless suffering we would do well to learn from Israel’s example and trust in the One True God and not the gods of this world. God always has a way of demonstrating His power and authority over every false god, and we would do well to trust in Him and not suffer His chastisement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Troubler of Israel

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

Our Common Suffering

Whom withstand stedfast in your faith, knowing that the same sufferings are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world (1 Peter 5:9).

During times of great difficulty– be it physical, emotional, and/or spiritual– it is easy for believers to get the impression that they are alone in what they are experiencing. They may feel that they are alone because it seems that no one else is suffering quite like they are. Others may feel that they are the only ones left who truly stand for God’s purposes and that everyone else has stumbled.

These feelings of isolation are normal and represent part of the temptations that go along with suffering. The Bible is very clear, however, that no matter how we suffer, we are not alone!

Peter demonstrates here in 1 Peter 5:9 that the sufferings the brethren in Asia Minor were experiencing were shared by their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that all the temptations we face are those common to mankind– there is no sin with which we are tempted that has never tempted anyone else before. If we stopped and thought about it– or communicated with fellow believers in other places– we would soon learn that most of the challenges, difficulties, and sources of pain that we experience are quite similar to those experienced by others. We are all in the same boat!

When it comes to feeling like we are the only ones left standing for God’s truth, the example of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is instructive. After defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and the message of Jezebel’s wrath, Elijah was distressed and fled. Consider what he says to God:

And he said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the 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” (1 Kings 19:14).

Elijah felt like he was the only one left. Yet consider what God has to say to him:

“Yet will I leave me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).

Elijah might have felt as if he were alone, but God knew that there were seven thousand others who stood for Him and His truth. Just because we are not aware of others who are doing God’s will does not mean that they do not exist. We can be confident that God will always make sure that there is a remnant of His people, and that they are never really alone (Romans 11:5). After all, even if one were the last one standing with God, there is greater power on God’s side than that which is opposed to Him (1 John 4:4)!

Despair, isolation, and feelings of being alone happen quite naturally in times of distress, challenge, and/or suffering. Yet they are lies. We are not alone. There are other Christians out there who are suffering the same things we are. There are others out there striving to serve God. And, regardless of what others may do, if we seek to serve God according to His will, He will provide strength and comfort (cf. Romans 8:31-39). Let us not be deceived into thinking that we suffer alone– let us pray to God for strength and be encouraged by our fellow believers in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry