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Most of us would agree that Elijah was a very anointed and powerful prophet. God gave him a rather difficult job assignment, because God assigned him to minister to one of the most wicked pair of Israel's kings and queens: Ahab and Jezebel. These two were under the direct control and influence of a very powerful demon -- commonly known as the Spirit Of Jezebel, but also referred to as Baal (the idol through whom this demon received worship). You might say that conflict and spiritual warfare were built into Elijah's job simply because of who God sent him to prophesy to.
Let's take a look at some of these conflicts and spiritual battles. But first, let's get an idea of what Ahab was like, and of why God sent Elijah to oppose him. 1 Kings 16:30-33 tells us, "Now Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. And it came to pass, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians; and he went and served Baal and worshiped him. Then he set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. And Ahab made a wooden image. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him." In other words, Ahab single- handedly did more to establish idolatry in Israel than all the kings who proceeded him. He even sacrificed (murdered) his own firstborn son to Baal (1 Kings 16:34).
Elijah's first assignment was a direct prophetic "power encounter" with king Ahab. We see this in 1 Kings 17, starting at verse 1: "And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word."
God drafted the prophet Elijah and sent him to Ahab with a very short prophecy -- it will not rain and you will have drought for the next three years. Ahab did not like that word at all. He wanted to retaliate against Elijah for giving that word (and for bringing the drought which caused terrible economic damage to his empire). So Elijah's life was in danger.
Now, here is the interesting thing. God's response to the threat was to tell Elijah to go hide (1 Kings 17:3). I had to do a double-take the first time I read this story. This is the same Elijah who later called down fire from heaven to destroy the enemy soldiers who wanted to take him captive (2 kings 1:10). And this is the same God who defeated all of the "gods" of Egypt (Ex 12:12) through a demonstration of His power. So wouldn't you expect God to protect Elijah in some really powerful way that proves He is much greater than Baal? Why on earth would God initiate a power encounter with Ahab and the Baal demon and then tell Elijah to go hide? Why wouldn't God just follow through on the power encounter by sending down fire to consume any of Ahab's soldiers who tried to attack or harm Elijah?
It is very easy to fall into presumption in the area of spiritual warfare. It is tempting to assume God will do things a certain way and then act on that way. But that could prove disastrous if you end up trying to engage the enemy in a different way than God is engaging him. The secret is to listen to God and obey what He tells us to do. Fortunately, Elijah seemed to know this secret and he obeyed God. And God took care of him supernaturally while he was in hiding. First, God had him hide by a brook and He sent ravens to bring him food (1 Kings 17:4-6). Later on God sent him to Zarephath and had him live with a widow and her son -- and God provided supernaturally for all three of them until the famine was over (1 Kings 17:8-16).
Why did God choose to have Elijah hide? I don't know for sure, the Bible does not tell us. But I have a guess. Elijah was "new" at serving God and had not yet experienced His power and faithfulness. So maybe God did not want to push Elijah beyond his level of faith by having soldiers come at him with swords drawn. I think God used this hiding time to give Elijah experiences of God's power and faithfulness -- like the ravens feeding him and the oil and flour never running out at the widow's house. I think God took advantage of those three years of hiding time to develop and grow Elijah's faith.
When the three years were up, God sent Elijah back to Ahab to make it rain again. But God also built a power encounter against the Baal demon into the mix. Elijah suddenly showed up and told Ahab to gather together the priests and prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel -- 450 of them. Elijah proposed a contest that went as follows: "Give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God" (1 Kings 18:23-24). Elijah issued this challenge publicly before a large crowd of common people. Everyone thought it was a great idea (1 Kings 18:24), so Ahab and his prophet had no choice but to comply to public pressure and enter this match.
I am sure you know the story. The prophets of Baal cried out to Baal all day and got no results. Elijah made fun of them, suggesting they try harder. But no fire came from the idol Baal. (Now, behind the scenes, there was probably a spiritual battle going on. I bet the "spirit of Jezebel," demon who received worship as Baal, would have loved to have started the fire and consumed the sacrifice. Personally, I believe that the demon probably had enough power to do that, if God had not prevented him from doing so. But God is much more powerful than any demon, so the demon was not allowed to light the fire.) Then at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah rebuilt God's altar and dug a trench around it. He cut up the sacrifice and put it on the altar. Then he had them pour all sorts of water on the altar and sacrifice so no one could accuse him of sneaking a coal in and cheating to start the fire. Then he called on God's name and God sent fire to consume the sacrifice. And the masses of people turned from Baal to worship God. And then Elijah ordered them to execute all the prophets and priests of the false god Baal. So they did.
Now, this was a very spectacular power encounter -- a major spiritual victory. God demonstrated His superiority over the idol and God defeated the demonic forces behind the idol. But God was not done yet. He had more to do. He had Elijah prophecy to Ahab that the drought was over, and then He caused it to start raining.
I think that this must have been a real spiritual highpoint for Elijah. I am sure he was thrilled by this victory. It was clearly a major win; God had won a very significant spiritual battle and totally defeated the enemy.
The enemy might have lost this battle, but he did not stop fighting the war. In fact, he immediately launched a counter attack on Elijah. Jezebel heard about Elijah's power encounter and about him ordering the people to kill all of the priests and she sent him a message that read, "I am going to kill you within the next 24 hours" (1 Kings 19:2).
Now Elijah reacted in the flesh. He got scared and he ran away (1 kings 19:3). I don't think God told him to run this time. He may have simply remembered and followed his instructions from last time, assuming God would want him to do the same thing again. Or maybe the "flight" hormones took over and he took action before he had a chance to think or pray about it. At any rate, Elijah fled for his life and went to the city of Beersheba in the enemy kingdom of Judah. And then a major depression settled over him, so major that he wanted to die. 1 Kings 19:4 tells us that he left his servant in Beersheba and then he went by himself "a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, 'It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!'"
Talk about a spiritual low after a spiritual high. The enemy had attacked Elijah on two fronts: his physical safety and his emotions. He felt depressed and discouraged. I think he probably felt disqualified from ministry, since he wanted to die instead of looking forward to future assignments from God. I think he felt like God was mad at him, because he prayed "I am no better than my fathers" and his "fathers" were known for displeasing God -- like when they complained and murmured in the wilderness or when they refused to enter the promised land or when they turned to idolatry.
Do you see it? This prophet had just experienced a significant spiritual victory. He had seen God do amazing things through him and he had a lot to be excited about. But the enemy immediately launched a spiritual warfare counter attack against Elijah. It took Elijah down, discouraged him, made him feel like God was not pleased with him, etc. Satan and his forces have not changed. They use the same strategy today. When God uses a person to deliver a powerful prophecy, then they come along to try and discourage that person, to get them down and to make them feel disqualified. They orchestrate the spiritual low that seems to follow the spiritual high. That is how they counter attack.
What was God's response? He did not come immediately and break the attack off of Elijah. First God saw to Elijah's physical needs, by sending an angel to feed him (1 Kings 19:5-7). Elijah was tired and physically worn out and therefore not in the most receptive of places. I know that my ability to hear God's voice clearly decreases when I am tired, or when I am physically worn out. Maybe it was the same for Elijah. Anyhow, the first thing God did was to take care of Elijah's physiological needs, and He sent an angel to do it. Elijah went to seek God, so he went to where he knew he'd find God -- the Mountain of Horeb, which was a 40 day journey (1 Kings 19:8). All this time, God did not meet Elijah or speak to Him. He let Elijah struggle with this spiritual warfare and come to God in his own way.
After Elijah traveled all the way to Horeb, then he rested in a cave and waited for God to show up. It is at that place of rest that God finally met him. God asked him a question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:9). I think that Elijah missed the intent of God's question because he was so taken out by the spiritual warfare counter attack. I think God wanted to let him know that he did not have to come all the way to Horeb, that God would have met him where he was at if he simply waited on God. But Elijah was focused on the counterattack and began telling God all about it. This was Elijah's answer: "I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life" (1 Kings 19:10). I can almost hear him add, under his breath, "God, how come You did not take care of the Jezebel threat and protect me after I risked my life to encounter the prophets of Baal for You?" Poor Elijah was pretty shaken by the enemy's counter attack.
So God gave him a spiritual encounter with God to help center his attention and focus from the enemy back onto God. We see that in 1 Kings 19:11-13. God did not directly address Elijah's concern at first -- He simply commissioned him with another task (1 Kings 19:15-17). I think that was God's way of addressing the enemy's attempt to make Elijah feel disqualified and discouraged and wanting to die. God demonstrated to him that it was not true by giving him another assignment.
Sometimes God does the same thing with us. Perhaps the enemy played "mind games" with us as a counter attack from serving God. And we can get to the place where we are so low that we think God will never use us again. And God's way of addressing that is to give us a bit of time to recover from the attack, refocus our attention on Him and then give us another prophetic assignment.