January 16, 2018

What Made Elijah Run: Fear or Frustration? (1 Kings 19:3)

Randy Fox

When we look at the story of Elijah’s flight and subsequent prayer for death, we wonder at his sudden reversal from power and boldness to fear and panic. It is startling to think of someone so strong as Elijah frightened away by the threat of Jezebel. Some would translate 1 Kings 19:3, “he was afraid and rose and ran for his life.” But the KJV translates it, “when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life.” This discrepancy demands a deeper look into the cause of Elijah’s flight.

This is one of the rare occasions where the spelling of the Hebrew consonants is the same for two different Hebrew words. Translators who say “he was afraid” are following the vowel pointing of the ancient texts for the Hebrew word yarah (to fear), whereas the KJV follows the pointing of the MT for ra’ah (to see). While an evaluation of the external evidence (text families, age of documents, etc.) is beyond the scope of an article such as this one (and provides no real solution in this case), the internal evidence (intrinsic probability and the immediate context) proves most helpful and, in this case, most determinative. While in no way discounting textual evidence, the internal evidence is more easily accessible to the Bible student in his English translation (as well as more interesting). The question with a text such as this is, “What is the author most likely to have written?” The solution becomes apparent by studying the context of Elijah’s flight.

The problem of using the word “fear” has always been the inconsistency of this single display of cowardice by Elijah at the words of Jezebel. Elijah had just demonstrated an amazing boldness. He had faced the king, the false prophets, and the nation of Israel alone. He had been used by God to bring about a great miracle (18:38) which brought about the long-awaited revival (18:39) with all of the people falling on their faces and confessing that Jehovah is God. Then follows the successful removal of 450 prophets of Baal and 400 of Ashera (18:40) and the wonderful answer to prayer ending the three-and-ahalf- year drought (18:46). It is hard to fathom that the threat of the wicked queen Jezebel and her threat to “get out of town in twenty-four hours or else” was really what propelled Elijah to a day’s journey beyond Beersheba. Rather, the flight itself suggests there was much more going on in the prophet’s mind than just the fear of a queen.

If Elijah had wanted to escape the jurisdiction of Jezebel, all he had to do was travel to neighboring Judah. The good king Jehoshaphat would have welcomed the godly prophet. However, Elijah traveled much further than necessary if his only aim was to escape a death threat. After traveling fifty miles from Jezreel to Judah, he went an additional forty miles south to Beersheba and then another day’s journey into the wilderness. When he was alone, Elijah petitioned God that he might die. He was not afraid of death and would actually have welcomed it at this point. It was not the death threat that he heard from Jezebel but rather what he saw that made him run.

What Elijah saw was that despite his faithfulness to the Lord and his sacrificial service, the nation remained the same. Even the miracles of God appeared to have no real effect upon anyone. Ahab remained the weak man he always had been, and Jezebel was just as resolute as ever on establishing Baal worship. What Elijah “saw” was that nothing had changed. He expressed this under the juniper tree: “I am not better than my fathers.” The other prophets, from Moses on, were not able to stem the flow of evil in Israel. It was not fear that made Elijah run, but disappointment. It wasn’t Jezebel’s threat (she swore by her gods, who were nothing anyway) but her persistence in her evil ways. Elijah’s hopes were crushed.

This is the same disappointment felt by many a servant of God who—despite faithful service, empowered preaching, and sacrificial living—senses that nothing has changed. You lead someone to Christ, and after some months he is still the same. You think people are maturing and going forward, and they reveal they have been going backwards instead. You labor in an area for years, and after ups and downs, things appear the same. It is this sense of unrealized expectations that can bring down God’s most faithful servants.

The Lord had to teach Elijah an important lesson: just because He wasn’t working in the way Elijah expected didn’t mean He wasn’t working. God would get rid of Baal worship and deal with Ahab and Jezebel; He would just use other people. Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha (19:15, 16) would all be instruments to accomplish that for which Elijah longed. Nevertheless, Elijah’s ministry set the stage for their work. The Lord prescribed the best therapy of all for His despondent servant: He sent Elijah back into the very service he had abandoned. To flights of frustration, God replies, “Go, return” (19:15).

Randy Fox pastors Faith Baptist Church in Anaheim, California.

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