What Are You Doing Here, Elijah?

Sermon preached on 1 Kings 19:9-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/09/2020 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

When I first began ministry here at Trinity back at the end of 2007 a lot of church members kept coming up to me and saying that they hoped I don’t get discouraged. Of course, I understood what they meant. Ministry here in Marin county is hard. This is rocky soil. There are so few churches here, so few people who go to church, and generally an attitude among the population that they don’t need the LORD. I would imagine those church members were concerned that I might get discouraged because they too have struggled with discouragement as Christians in this area. I think most of us are here in a church like this because we are excited for the LORD and our jealous for the Lord’s Word and want to see our community here embrace it. It can be discouraging – even lonely — when so many around us reject, ridicule, or even disparage our faith.

Well, I hope you see how we can relate to the prophet Elijah here. He had such high hopes for ministry in Israel. After that climactic victory on Mt. Carmel he surely expected major revival in the land. But then in last week’s passage we saw his hopes dashed as King and Queen Ahab and Jezebel redouble their efforts to persecute Elijah and the faith. It left Elijah discouraged and despairing even unto death. But then God sent an angel to minister to him. Ultimately Elijah journeys to where he is at here in our passage for today. He came to Mt. Sinai, aka Mt. Horeb, back to where God began everything in terms of covenanting with Israel as a nation. Why did Elijah come in such circumstances back to Mt. Sinai? That is what we’ll have a chance to consider today.

Let’s begin by observing that a lot of this should look familiar. It should remind us of Moses at Mt. Sinai so long before. We should not be surprised to find a prophet in the future look like Moses and in so many ways resemble Moses’ ministry. Moses himself predicted that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself to minister to God’s people. Surely, Elijah was the greatest candidate to date to be the fulfillment of that promise. Elijah seems to have had such a personal and revelation-rich relationship with the LORD like Moses. And Elijah’s ministry also came in power with signs and wonders like how Moses had done, not only in confronting Pharaoh, but even afterward in leading the people through the wilderness to here at Mt. Sinai. God’s supernatural workings through Elijah likewise served to not only confront an oppressive king, but even most recently ministered supernaturally to him in the wilderness on his own personal journey to Mt. Sinai.

Then, like Moses, Elijah went 40 days without food in conjunction with meeting the LORD on Mt. Sinai. That’s verse 8 of last week’s passage as Elijah journeyed to Mt. Sinai. It contrasts with Exodus 34:28 where we see that Moses fasted for 40 days while on Mt. Sinai receiving the law from God. Of course, the fact that Elijah is on the mountain at all meeting the LORD looks like Moses. Remember, back at Moses’ day the everyday Israelite was instructed to not go up the mountain, not even to touch it, Exodus 19:12. The reason why, of course, was because of the Lord’s awesome presence on the mountain. And it is that presence that is again seen on this mountain, with Elijah, in Moses-like role, experiencing God’s presence there on the mountain.

The connection with Moses might also be intended to be brought out in verse 9’s reference to a cave. While translators seem to universally translate that as “a cave” that Elijah came to, commentators like to regularly point out that the literal Hebrew is not “a cave” but “the cave”. The thought is that maybe this is “the cave” as in the cleft of the rock from where Moses was allowed to see the backside of God’s glory as the LORD passed by. That line of interpretation is fueled by the fact that verse 11 uses the same language that the LORD “passed by” as was used in Exodus 33 to describe God’s glory passing by Moses while in the cleft of the rock.

Maybe most significant about this similarity with Moses before on Mount Sinai is the context of covenant violation. Mt. Sinai stands out in history as the place where God entered into the Mosaic covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel. There God gave them the law through Moses which was a central part of that covenant. There God summarized especially his moral law by the giving of the Ten Commandments. But it was there while Moses was on the mountain engraving the Ten Commandments that the people violated the second commandment with the idolatry of the golden calf. It was there that Israel was guilty of breaking the covenant just as it was getting started. There, Moses and God spoke of this egregious covenant breaking by Israel. And so too here, Elijah and God speak about covenant violation again on the top of Mt. Sinai.

We see that so clearly in the question God brings twice to Elijah. God asks Elijah twice, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Many have thought that was more of a rhetorical question that was meant as a rebuke to Elijah – implying that there wasn’t a good reason to be there. But if we take the question at face value, along with Elijah’s answer, we see that it’s more about inviting Elijah to state his purpose in coming to Mt. Sinai. Elijah’s answer then sets the context for his coming in terms of the matter of covenant violation by Israel. In fact, this question by God, almost a bit strange, also parallels the interaction with God and Moses when Israel broke the covenant with the golden calves. In Exodus 32:10, God announces to Moses his intention to bring judgment upon Israel because of the golden calf incident. God tells Moses there “now let me alone”. It’s a strange statement for God to tell that to Moses. And it’s a strange statement here for God to ask Elijah, “What are you doing here?” But both strange statements seem intended to invite each prophet into a dialogue with God on the matter of covenant violation by the people.

And so, there are a number of similarities with today’s passage with Moses’ time before on Mt. Sinai. Clearly these are intentionally drawn out to us in the text. However, there are also some differences between what goes on here between Elijah and God and with Moses and God on this same mountain. I’d like to next consider some of those differences.

An immediate difference is in the fact of how God’s presence manifested itself. God was not in the powerful wind, not in the rumbling earthquake, and not in the blazing fire. Realize, this is the kind of phenomenon we find in the book of Exodus to describe the presence of God on Sinai with Moses. It was awesome in the terrifying sense (Deut 9:19, Exod 19:16), especially in how it symbolized the powerful wrath of God toward sin. The account of Sinai with Moses was full of this spectacular phenomena to represent God. But not here with Elijah. Elijah is specifically told to come out and stand before the LORD. In other words, he’s been told to expect the presence of the LORD to come upon him there on Mt. Sinai. Yet God’s presences is not in any of these expected things. Instead, God’s presence comes in the unexpected sound of a low whisper. The Hebrew here is something along the lines of the sound of stillness or possibly even silence. When everything quiets down after the uproar of the wind, earthquake, and fire – in the stillness of that aftermath – Elijah recognizes the presence of the LORD. That’s when he wraps his face in a cloak, probably for like how Moses didn’t look at the frontside of God’s glory. That’s when God speaks to Elijah in a voice. There God comes to him in the form of his Word on Mt. Sinai. So, that is certainly a different way that God chose to manifest his presence on Sinai. The same God who manifested himself in such awesome phenomena like he did with Moses, can also choose to manifest himself in this very different way. But it is the same God who sometimes has come in the spectacle that also sometimes comes in the ordinary and the simple.

Well, a second difference to point out between Moses’s time on Sinai with Elijah’s is in how their conversations went about the covenant violation of Israel. With Moses, it is God who informs Moses about how Israel broke covenant with the golden calf. But here it is the opposite – it is Elijah who brings this charge before God. God asks Elijah to state his business for being there at Mt. Sinai, and we see him bring formal charge against Israel. He gives the same charges twice, word for word, in verses 19 and 14. The charges include: forsaking the covenant, desecration of God’s altars, and murder of the Lord’s prophets. Elijah stands affirming his zeal and personal fidelity to the LORD, but that consequently he too has become a target as the last prophet left faithful to the Lord. Elijah’s words here are true to the role of the prophets during that stage of Israel’s history. The prophets during the time of the divided kingdom repeatedly show themselves as acting as covenant lawyers on God’s behalf. Their prophetic ministry generally brought charges against Israel in how they have breached the terms of the covenant, calling the people to repent. Well, here Elijah does that same thing, but this time with him directly speaking to God in accusing Israel. Elijah’s words as a covenant lawyer imply that he is asking God to act in judgment against Israel.

The substance of Elijah’s words here are very different than how Moses spoke to God on Sinai about Israel’s breach of covenant. Moses words to God came not as a lawyer making accusation, but as a mediator asking for mercy. Moses interceded to God on Israel’s behalf and pled for him to forgive their sin. Whereas Elijah told God how he feared Israel might take his life, Moses instead went so far as to even offer to God that God take his life instead of the people’s (Exodus 32:32). Whereas Elijah appealed to the Mosaic covenant as what the people forsook, Moses appealed to the Abrahamic covenant that God might not forsake it — by completely destroying the people in judgment. Whereas God suggested to Moses that he could restart his salvation plans through Moses alone, Elijah suggests to God that he alone is left to save. There is a significant difference between God’s conversation with Moses on Sinai and with Elijah on Sinai. Moses and Elijah serve in two very different ways on Sinai – though both legitimate and important roles. Moses is the mediator and intercessor pleading for grace. Elijah is the just covenant lawyer bringing accusation out of righteous jealousy for the Lord. Two important, albeit very different, roles in service to the LORD.

I’d like to turn now in our third point and think of God’s ministry plans that come in response to all of this. Back in Moses’ day, we know that God did bring grace ultimately in response to Moses’ intercession – but not without some significant chastening first. Three thousand were put to death, at that time, at the hand of the Levites. God also then sent a plague among the people. And for a time, God threatened to not go with them any more to the Promised Land. But through continued intercession by Moses, God agreed and did go up with the people into the Promised Land. But what about here with Elijah? What’s God’s response to the covenant charges that Elijah levels against Israel here?

Well, first off, we see that God has a ministry game plan. It will indeed involve a massive judgment against Israel. There will be a three-pronged approach by God. He’ll raise up both the sword of a pagan king and the sword of an Israelite king. He’ll also raise up another prophet to carry on Elijah’s work. God is very clear of the judgment that will take place at the hand of these three. Hazael, King of Syria, will strike first. Then King Jehu. Then finally, Elisha the prophet. We’ll learn in 2 Kings 8 that King Hazael will defeat many Israelite towns and slaughter many Israelites. King Jehu on the other hand will be responsible with putting down the house of Omri from reigning over Israel, as well as destroying the prophets of Baal and Baal worship from among Israel. Elisha will be instrumental through all of this in varying ways, and in other prophetic ministrations among both Israel and the international community.

An important thing to note about this judgment God would bring upon Israel is that it would not be a complete destruction of Israel. God would not wipe out Israel and restart with just Elijah. If Elijah thought that he was the only faithful Israelite left then he would be mistaken. For in fact, God’s ministry plan has included a remnant of some seven thousand in Israel. Note that in verse 18 God says that these are people who have not yet participated in Baal worship. There was in fact a faithful remnant of God’s people among the northern kingdom of Israel! The Apostle Paul would later refer to this in Romans 11. Paul says of this seven thousand that they were kept by God for himself – clearly describing the electing grace of God so that these seven thousand should thank God for choosing to preserve them in the faith. But Paul then applies that to his own day. Paul acknowledges that many during his day among Israel were not saved as evidenced by their rejecting of Jesus Christ. But Paul said, like with Elijah’s day, God’s plans had not failed, because God had preserved a remnant chosen by grace. Even too in our own day, if we are tempted to think we are all alone as Christians, we should know God’s ministry plans have not failed. God yet today has a faithful remnant alive in his visible church on earth today. As for Elijah, this mention of a remnant is God telling them that he in fact is not all alone – that there yet remains this faithful remnant that God will preserve even amidst the three-pronged judgment that he would be raising up against covenant-breaking Israel. So that in the aftermath of the judgment, God would rebuild the true religion among the remnant.

So then, for Elijah himself, God sends him back to his work as a prophet among the people! In verse 15, God’s response includes instructions for him to leave Mt. Sinai and head back the way he came toward Damascus. Interestingly, Scripture doesn’t record Elijah himself anointing either Hazael or Jehu. Instead, the text immediately shows Elijah finding and calling Elisha into prophetic service. Later the text will show that it is Elisha, as Elijah’s successor, who is instrumental in both Hazael and Jehu’s rise to their respective thrones. So, while Elijah gets sent back into prophetic service, his ministry especially turns to focus on how his work will be continued through Elisha. As Moses work was continued and in many ways completed by his successor Joshua, so too the work God gave Elijah would be carried on and completed by his successor Elisha. Both Moses and Elijah look for one who would carry on their work after them. Thus, Elijah was not as alone as he thought he was as a prophet. God here blesses Elijah with a ministry partner!

Well, we’ve been reflecting here on God’s ministry plans in response to Elijah’s words on Mount Sinai. Let’s remember then God’s greater ministry plans in all of this. We find the plans really come together on another mountain, where both Elijah and Moses get to come together and hear the voice of the LORD. I refer to mountain described in Matthew 17, where Jesus went up with Peter, James, and John. There, not only was Jesus transfigured before those three disciples, but also Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. There, on that mountain, they heard the voice from the majestic glory of God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:5).

Moses and Elijah both came together to behold Jesus and his glory on that mount of transfiguration. And more than either Joshua or Elisha, Jesus is ultimately the one who carried on and completed the ministry that both Moses and Elijah began. Jesus is the prophet like Moses who came – and not only like Moses, but he was greater than Moses. And Elijah indeed came as the forerunner before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD which comes in Jesus Christ.

Think about it. The similar but different ministries of Moses and Elijah each find their best fruition in Jesus. That’s illustrated so well even by the different roles we talked of them today. Jesus came as the mediator and intercessor for God’s chosen people, and did in fact secure their divine forgiveness by the sacrifice of his own life for them. But Jesus did this, not in ignoring the righteous judgment of God. The accusations of sin against God’s people are true, and so Jesus, jealous for God’s law, took on all those true charges and made atonement for the elect on the cross. And in fact, to all those who do not know the salvation that is in the name of Jesus, Jesus himself will return on the final day for judgment. “He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth” (Psalm 110:6). The similar but different ministries find an amazing coming together in the ministry of Jesus Christ. So then, may we each be a part of this saved remnant of God’s people by repenting of our sins and turning to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In him there is forgiven, grace, and eternal life.

To us then who have come to know this glorious salvation in Jesus, I would like to encourage your hearts with the truth that God’s redemptive plans do not fail. We need to be reminded this because how God works his redemptive plans in history can not always meet what we expect. Sometimes the visible church can be so outwardly big and vibrant and growing. Other times, it can seem so small and dwindling. But it’s like the analogy of how God’s presence was manifested in different ways on Sinai. Sometimes God in the past has worked in the spectacle and the supernatural. Sometimes God’s work has been through the ordinary ministry of his faithful people bringing his Word to the world. Sometimes God’s work comes in the spectacle of the victory over Baal at Mt. Carmel or in the victory over death at Mt. Calvary and the subsequent resurrection. But, sometimes God’s work comes in the faithful weekly reading and preaching of God’s Word to a small remnant kept in the faith by grace. Today, God’s work is marked out primarily in the simple and the ordinary. Though, interestingly, Revelation speaks of the coming day of the Lord’s wrath in the language of the spectacle again – “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake” (Rev 16:18). We are called to faith, that in whatever way God is working in our day, to trust that he is still at work. His promises and plans will not fail. If tempted to discouragement, let us bring our weary hearts to the LORD and pray that he would sustain us until the day described in Revelation 19:6. There, something else is described as the sound of the mighty peals of thunder. There it’s not God’s presence, but the voice of a great multitude of saints crying out in the victory of glory, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!” Oh Lord, sustain us unto that day! Amen.

Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.