Oh, here we go again. Another sermon on Elijah’s failure and how God never used him after that.
I don’t know how many times the story has been spun from our pulpits: “Elijah scored his biggest victory ever at Mount Carmel, and then he blew it. He gave in to discouragement, ran for his life, and that was the end of his ministry. God was so displeased that He immediately chose someone to replace Elijah. And Elijah never did anything important for God again.”
The moral of this concocted version of 1 Kings 19 is, if you allow fear, doubt, or discouragement to get in, you’re done — so don’t ever do that. (Like we haven’t all already done the same thing a time or two!)
In actuality, Elijah continued to have a powerful prophetic ministry after his brief lapse into discouragement. He prophesied to Ahab about the consequences of seizing Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:17-29). He prophesied to Ahab’s successor, demonstrating his prophetic authority by calling down fire from heaven on the king’s soldiers. And he was still around during the reign of the king who came after (2 Kings 1). Furthermore, he established training camps for young prophets in Bethel and Jericho (2 Kings 2:2-5).
Perhaps most importantly, he spent years pouring himself into Elisha, raising him up to be a mighty prophet like unto himself. Jewish historian Josephus indicates in Book VIII of his work, Antiquities of the Jews, that Elijah continued 13-15 years after he anointed Elisha to take his place (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-8.html). Other Bible scholars estimate anywhere from 10-20 more years passed before Elijah was carried up into heaven.
I’m glad that the story as it has been told from too many pulpits is untrue. You see, through the years, I have identified with Elijah a lot. I have repeatedly prayed that God would help me to hear Him with pinpoint accuracy like Elijah did. I’ve desired to be persistent and effective in prayer, as he was.
But I’ve also felt a kinship with Elijah in his temperament, leaning toward the melancholy side, sometimes taking myself a little too seriously, and having a tendency toward despondency if I don’t rigorously guard against it.
I take comfort in the apostle James’ tribute to Elijah (James 5:16-18). He held him up as our example for effective prayer. Apparently, James did not regard Elijah as a washout, and God didn’t either. Besides giving him a nod in James’ epistle, He chose to have Elijah appear with Moses on the mount of transfiguration to encourage Jesus concerning His impending death for mankind (Luke 9:28-31).
Elijah’s story does not end there. In truth, his greatest ministry is yet to come. We are told in Malachi 4:5, 6, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD, and he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers ….”
This prophecy was foreshadowed, but not completely fulfilled, in John the Baptist. Some Bible teachers spiritualize the Malachi passage by saying Elijah will not literally come again. They think it will be carried out by a last days’ generation who will collectively carry “the spirit of Elijah.” That may certainly take place, but seeing how Bible prophecy consistently is fulfilled quite literally, I believe we will see Elijah himself accomplish this on the earth, perhaps as one of the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation 11.
What can we take away from Elijah’s story?
Perhaps you’ve failed. Maybe you got your eyes off Jesus, became afraid, and “ran for your life” when you were supposed to stand in your victory. It’s a lie that God is now finished with you just because you didn’t do it right.
In spite of those sermons, God did not throw Elijah on the garbage heap. (Neither was He done with Peter when he failed to keep walking on the water or when he denied Jesus.) God knows our failings and has compassion on us. “Like a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him, for He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13, 14).
If you have grown discouraged and have run from your calling or your circumstances, don’t buy the lie that God has permanently put you on the shelf. Put your hand back in the Lord’s and keep going. Your most fruitful days can still lie ahead of you.
Before Whom We Stand: The Everyman’s Guide to the Nature of God,
by Lee Ann Rubsam