Elijah – like us and not like us

We’ve started a series on Elijah and Elisha in our Saturday evening studies. As the stories about these prophets are strange, I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to dig into the text to discover what it is actually saying and how we might respond to it.

One thing that makes the prophet Elijah fascinating is how often he’s mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (see below for a list). James 5:16b-18 (NIV) says the following in relation to Elijah:

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

I find this a hard text because my prayers don’t always seem to be that effective. Despite what Matthew 17:20 says – that “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” – it doesn’t seem like prayer is quite that simple: pray, and it will happen. Despite the text’s claim that Elijah was human just like us, it seems like Elijah’s words/prayers were different.

The stories about Elijah actually do suggest that he was different. There is something odd about the presentation of Elijah in the text – as Brodie puts it, it is as if Elijah is portrayed as being not quite human. Goldingay, on page 79 of his commentary on 1&2 Kings says: “Elijah appears like a bolt out of the blue. Indeed, prophecy of this kind appears out of the blue; the power he assumes has no precedent.” Elijah speaks the word – there will be no rain- and it is so. Despite the declaration in James 5 that Elijah is human just like us, the text seems to present Elijah as being not quite human (Elisha, however, is much more human).

It is near the end of 1 Kings 17 that Elijah – and his prayers – come across as being much closer to our own experience. The widow’s son has stopped breathing and she accuses Elijah of coming to remind her of her sin and kill her son.

“Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” (1 Kings 17:19-23, NIV)

While Elijah prayed for the boy to come back to life, he did so with questions. He did not assure the widow that all would be well. Instead, the text suggests that Elijah – despite everything we know about the power of Elijah’s prayers – pleaded for God to restore the boy’s life. The text gives the impression that Elijahs was as astonished and overjoyed by the son’s return to life as we expect his mother was. It is this kind of prayer – the plea for the impossible and the recognition that this impossibility might not be God’s will (but that I am allowed and even ought to pray for it) – that I can relate more to.

Knowing the background of more of Elijah’s prayers helps make the words of James 5 a bit more comprehensible. The text is not so simple, and yet it is distressingly simple: Pray and God will do amazing things. At the same time, do not expect everything: for we are mere human beings (like Elijah) and not God.

 

Places Elijah comes up in the Bible (outside of 1 Kings):

  • 2 Chronicles 21:12
  • Malachi 4:5
  • Matt 11:14
  • Matt 16:14; Mark 8:28; Luke 9:19 (who do people say I am? Elijah)
  • Matt 17:3, 4; Mark 9:4-5; Luke 9:30-33 (Transfiguration)
  • Matt 17:10-12; Mark 9:11-13 (why must Elijah come first (cf. Mal 4:5); has already come)
  • Matt 27:47, 49; Mark 15:35-36 (calling? Elijah at crucifixion)
  • Mark 6:15; Luke 9:8 – people call Jesus Elijah or a prophet like long ago
  • Luke 1:17
  • Luke 4:26
  • John 1:21-25 – who are you? Are you Elijah? Then why do you baptize?
  • Romans 11:2
  • James 5:17 (speaks of prayer).

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