God's Mountain Man
1 Kings 17:1Last December right after the tsunami disaster, my friend Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary, sent an email that contained a simple, one-sentence prayer. He called it a “dangerous prayer.” The moment I saw that prayer I knew that it was going to be my prayer for 2005. It goes like this: “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” So last December I started praying that for myself and for my family, and I got up on the first Sunday of January, told my congregation, we’re going to make this our prayer for 2005, “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” It scared some people to death, and I have discovered that if you pray that prayer you’d better get ready because God is going to shake you up and shake your family up. And he certainly has done that for my family.
I am writing these words from a cabin overlooking a lake. You get to the cabin by going through a cattle gate and driving a quarter-mile down a gravel road. To get to the gravel road, you take a winding country road that connects to another country road that connects to the Natchez Trace. If you travel nine miles south, you come to the town of Tupelo, Mississippi. You would never get to the cabin by accident. You can hardly get here on purpose. This morning as I look out on the lake, the water is perfectly still. The nearest home is about a half-mile away. The lake and the cabin sit on a hundred wooded acres. Two days ago I met a young man driving a pickup truck on the gravel road. He told me that he had been bow-hunting deer and that the field on the other side of the lake was “full of deer” and that the woods were full of wild turkeys. I knew then that I wasn’t in Oak Park anymore. Some of you will remember that line from Green Acres, the one that goes “Goodbye city life.” That pretty much describes our current situation.
We are here because the Lord has called us to be here, at least for the time being. We are here by God’s direction, to seek his face so that we may know him better and find out what he wants us to do next. We are certain that this is part of God’s answer to the prayer, “Lord, do things we aren’t used to.” I have written in other places about China and our boys, and about Marlene’s cancer and her continuing recovery, which is going well and for which we give thanks to God.
I’ve already said that when you pray the prayer Lord, do things we’re not used to, you’d better buckle your seatbelt because God will shake things up. He’s not a God of the Status Quo. First he shakes us up, and then he uses us to shake our world. That’s always been God’s method. When God wanted to change the world, he told Noah to do something he had never done before (build an ark) to prepare for something he’d never seen before (rain). When God wanted to bring forth a great nation, he called a successful, middle-aged businessman named Abram and told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. When God wanted to deliver his people, he found a man slow of speech named Moses and sent him to talk to the Pharaoh. When God needed someone to defeat Goliath, he chose a shepherd boy named David. When Christ wanted some men in his inner circle, he chose fisherman and tax collectors, a loud mouth named Peter and two brothers called the “sons of thunder,” and told them to drop everything and follow him. Talk about doing things you’re not used to. I repeat. He’s not a God of the Status Quo.
With this message we are beginning a study of one of the greatest men of the Old Testament. He was a prophet and he was a mountain man who comes out of nowhere to step onto center stage. He lived by a brook in a ravine. And then in a widow’s house. He defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and then ran and hid in a cave. He was uncouth and unrefined, yet God used him to shake a nation. Because he didn’t follow the status quo, he made everyone around him uncomfortable. And we’re still talking about him 2700 years later. His name is Elijah. He was God’s Mountain Man.
Seven Evil Kings
Our story begins in 1 Kings 15. For most of us this is part of the white pages of the Bible. That is to say, it’s a section of the Bible we normally don’t look at very much unless we’re trying to read through the Bible in a year. That’s a shame because these chapters contain enormous spiritual truth that we need to learn. The author of 1 Kings traces the story of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, and by putting them up against each other, he draws attention to those who walked with God and those who didn’t. For our purposes, we will concentrate on the kings of Israel, the name given to the northern ten tribes after the nation split in 931 BC. The northern ten tribes are usually called Israel; the southern two tribes are usually called Judah. I want to call your attention to a succession of kings in the northern ten tribes.
The first king of the northern ten tribes was a man by the name of Jeroboam. We know he was not a good king because he erected images of two golden calves, one at Dan in the north and one at Bethel in the south. And he said to his people, “These are your gods. You do not have to go down to Jerusalem to worship. Go to Dan in the north or to Bethel in the south and there offer your sacrifices to the true god of your nation.” And so Jeroboam introduced idolatry into the nation, and he brought down upon his people the wrath of the Lord God.
Jeroboam was succeeded on the throne by his son Nadab. We pick up the story in 1 Kings 15:25-26. “Nadab the son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and he reigned over Israel two years. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and walked in the way of his father, and in his sin which he made Israel to sin.” Nadab reigned for only two years because he was assassinated. “In the third year of Asa king of Judah, Baasha the son of Ahijah began to reign over all Israel at Tirzah, and he reigned twenty-four years. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to sin.” (1 Kings 15:33-34).
So now we have three kings in Israel, each one worse than the one before:
Baasha has a son whose name was Elah. “In the twenty-sixth year of Asa king of Judah, Elah the son of Baasha began to reign over Israel in Tirzah, and he reigned two years” (1 Kings 16:8). Verse 13 mentions “all the sins of Baasha and the sins of Elah his son, which they sinned and which they made Israel to sin, provoking the LORD God of Israel to anger with their idols.” Here’s the fourth king and he’s as bad as the first three. After two years a man named Zimri assassinates Elah. 1 Kings 16:15 says Zimri reigned only seven days. That’s hardly long enough to begin the makeover of the palace. You hardly have time to move out the old furniture and move in the new. After one week on the throne, he was assassinated by a man named Omri “because of the sins he had committed, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, and walking in the ways of Jeroboam and the sin he had committed and caused Israel to commit” (1 Kings 16:19).
So here’s the list of kings so far:
Omri was the worst of all. Look at 1 Kings 16:25. “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did more evil than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:25).
There is yet one more name in this long list of the evil kings of Israel, a name you will recognize. We are told in 1 Kings 16:28 that “Omri slept with his fathers and was buried in Samaria, and Ahab his son reigned in his place” You’ve heard that name. These other fellows we don’t know very much about, but Ahab we know. You’ve heard of him, and you’ve probably heard of his wife Jezebel.
At last we come to the bottom line.
Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30-33).So the story unfolds this way:
Jeroboam did evil in the eyes of the Lord.
Nadab his son did evil in the eyes of the Lord.
He was assassinated by Baasha who did evil in the eyes of the Lord.
He was followed by his son Elah who did evil in the eyes of the Lord.
He was assassinated by Zimri who did evil in the eyes of the Lord.
He was assassinated by Omri who did even more evil in the eyes of the Lord.
He was succeeded by his son Ahab who was the worst of all the kings of Israel to this point.
From Jeroboam to Nadab to Baasha to Elah to Zimri to Omri to Ahab we are not going up. The nation is spiraling downward and it seems that just when you think things can’t get any worse, the bottom falls out, and the nation descends even further into idolatry and immorality.
“God Gave Them Up”
As I read this sordid story of evil men who mislead their own people, I ask myself a question. Where is God? Where is God? We are told that what these men did provoked the Lord God. If so, where was the Lord? I submit to you that for many years he was nowhere to be found. Ladies and Gentlemen, sometimes God judges us by actively intervening, and sometimes God judges a people and a nation simply by leaving them alone. Romans 1 explains this process in great detail. If you want to understand the flow of history and the reason great nations decline, if you want to know why every human empire eventually implodes, read Romans 1. Because men suppress the truth about God, they turn to idolatry. Because they forsake God, he forsakes them. Three times in Romans 1 Paul uses a phrase that describes God’s response to human rebellion:
“God gave them up” (v. 24).
“God gave them up” (v. 26).
“God gave them up” (v. 28).
Other translations use a phrase like “God gave them over.” It comes from a Greek word that means to hand over in judgment. It’s what happens at the end of the trial when the judge says to the bailiff, “Take this man away.” He is “handed over” for imprisonment. That’s what is happening in Romans 1. When any nation says, Lord, we don’t need you, God says fine; have it your way. C.S. Lewis said that there are really only two prayers we can pray. Every prayer in the universe falls into one of two categories:
Your will be done, or
My will be done.
If we say to God, “I do not want to do your will, my will be done,” God says, “Have it your way, but you won’t be happy with the results.” All of us know people who are living illustrations of this principle. You may say, “I’ve got a husband or I’ve got a wife or I’ve got a child or I’ve got a friend for whom that process of God’s judgment is taking place in their life.” When they hurdle headlong away from the Lord, God doesn’t have to do anything to judge them; they judge themselves by their own rebellion.
The Frog in the Kettle
A few months ago I was interviewed by a man who works for a pro-family organization in Wisconsin. He wanted to talk to me because he knew that Oak Park is heavily influenced by the homosexual community. We were the first community in Illinois to pass a non-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians. We were the first community in the Midwest to elect a lesbian as a village president. We were one of the first communities in the nation with a registry for domestic partners. I think it’s far to say that the homosexual community in Oak Park is very strong. In September 2004, Calvary Memorial Church got quite a bit of publicity in Chicago because I preached for five weeks about marriage and the family from God’s point of view. One Sunday I preached on The Truth About Same-Sex Marriage. We were picketed by three different gay rights groups and the Chicago media covered it extensively. Leadership Journal wrote an article about it. I won’t say much about that day (since the story is online), except to say that what the devil meant for evil, God meant for good. We discovered that once you get past all the picketers and all the protesters, God used our church’s willingness to take a stand to open doors for communication. God gave us amazing opportunities to talk to people inside the gay community and to show them the love of Jesus Christ.
So when the man from Wisconsin called me, he wanted to know what our church was doing in this area. Then he said to me, “What your church did last year is very unusual. Most evangelical churches these days are unwilling to tackle those issues. Why do you think that is?” There are lots of answers to that question, but if you go underneath the surface, I think too many pastors and too many elder boards are just plain scared. I think we’re just scared of what will happen in the community. I think we’re scared of bad publicity. I think we’re scared of the kind of thing that happened at Calvary last September. And sometimes we’re scared of what people inside the church will say. I discovered that when I preached about it, I wasn’t the most popular person in my own congregation. I didn’t have one hundred percent support of everybody in my own congregation. Inside the evangelical church there is a growing softness on the issue of homosexuality largely because there are so many families inside our own churches with sons and daughters and friends and ex-wives and ex-husbands who have gone into that way of life. But that’s not the only problem. You can hardly find a sitcom on TV that doesn’t have an obligatory friendly, nice, normal gay character on it. We’re being fed a constant diet of pro-homosexual propaganda from Hollywood. And say what we will, we aren’t telling the truth if we claim that we’re not impacted by that. Billy Graham commented that one of the problems inside the church is that today we laugh at things that used to embarrass us thirty or forty years ago. Or even worse, we don’t even laugh anymore. We’ve become like the proverbial frog in the kettle. We’ve gotten used to it. As things have declined morally and spiritually in the culture around us, the church has subtly changed along with the culture. I’m not saying we’ve changed our convictions, but we are less willing, I think, to go out on a limb for what the Bible really says than we were a generation or two ago. I do think it’s high time we regained some backbone inside the evangelical church.
Hot Button Issues
The July 11, 2005 issue of Time magazine contained an article by Daniel Eisenberg in which he talked about six hot button issues that are at stake in the battle over the Supreme Court. His list includes abortion and gay rights, church and state, crime, affirmative action, state’s rights, and the right to die. It helps to remember that Time magazine is not Christianity Today or World magazine. I think Mr. Eisenberg is absolutely right when he uses the term hot button issues. And there is a moral and spiritual component to every one of those issues. We live in the midst of a cultural and spiritual battle that is being waged on many fronts. After the terrorists attacked the London subways, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that people who blow up buildings and blow themselves up in London subways are following an “evil ideology.” He is right.
Leadership is about more than politics and winning elections. And it’s about much more than whose agenda will prevail. Every decision has a moral component because every decision comes from a worldview that either leads us to God or away from God. And that brings us back to those evil kings of Israel. Jeroboam did that which was evil. Nadab did that which was evil. Baasha did that which was evil. Elah did that which was evil. Zimri did that which was evil. Omri was worse than the first five, and his son Ahab was the worst of all.
Do you know what Ahab did? According to 1 Kings 16, in the days of Ahab it became trivial to offer sacrifices to idols. The people of God just didn’t care anymore. Is that not the Old Testament version of Romans 1? And what is the end of Romans 1? When men turn away from God, God gives them over to face the consequences of their own evil choices. Romans 1:24-32 contains a long list of sins that includes homosexuality but it is far, far, far more than that. Romans 1 pictures the total disintegration of society as it turns away from God. The final step is that evil is not only tolerated, it is celebrated (v. 32).
How is that so different from America in 2005? Hear the Word of the Lord.
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” Proverbs 14:34.
“Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them” (Proverbs 28:4).
“When the righteous triumph, there is great glory, but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:12).
“When the wicked rise, people hide themselves, but when they perish, the righteous increase” (Proverbs 28:28).
“When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan” (Proverbs 29:2).
“When the wicked increase, transgression increases, but the righteous will look upon their downfall” (Proverbs 29:16).
Here’s one more verse. I actually laughed when I found this one. Solomon’s wisdom cheered me up. Proverbs 11:10 declares that “when it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.”
How bad can it get?
Jeroboam to Nadab.
Nadab to Baasha.
Baasha to Elah.
Elah to Zimri.
Zimri to Omri.
Omri to Ahab
Ahab was the worst of all, and Jezebel was his evil wife.
And … Bam!
That brings me at last to the end of 1 Kings 16 and the beginning of 1 Kings 17. In the NIV, verse 1 begins with the word “now.” In the Hebrew it’s literally and. That’s important because the author wants us to catch the flow of history from God’s point of view. It’s and, not simply now. Let’s go over that list one more time. Here are the seven evil kings of Israel from 1 Kings 15-16:
Now we’re down in the sewer. The nation is far gone in immorality and idolatry. Things appear to be totally hopeless. Note the little word and. Something is about to happen.
God is about to enter the situation.
God’s about to interject himself.
Almighty God is about to be heard from.
And…and…and. When times are bad and the situation is hopeless, God has a man. “And Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe in Gilead said to Ahab” (1 Kings 17:1). I have a question for you. Have you ever watched Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network? If you’ve seen him, you know what he does when he is preparing a recipe on camera. There’s something he says when he’s about to add some cinnamon or some salt or some garlic to the mixture. He’ll pour in on, and then he’ll shout, “Bam!”
A little cinnamon. Bam!
A little salt. Bam!
A little garlic. Bam!
That’s what’s happening here. And Elijah said to Ahab. Bam! The prophet of God shows up. No preparation. No warning. No genealogy at all. Did you know in some Jewish traditions, not mainline Judaism, but in some Jewish traditions they even think Elijah was an angel because like Melchizedek, he comes out of nowhere. We don’t know anything about his parents or grandparents. The Jews loved genealogy, but nothing is recorded about his background.
Let’s do the list again:
Elijah. Bam! God has now been heard from. No wonder they thought he was an angel, though that was not what Ahab thought. When times are bad and the situation is hopeless, God has a man whose name is Elijah. Alexander Whyte called him “a Mount Sinai of a man with a heart like a thunderstorm.” F.B. Meyer called him a “colossus among men.” Alexander McClaren called him “the Martin Luther of the Old Testament.”
Before we go any further, here are a few facts about Elijah:
# 1: He was one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament. You could easily argue that Moses was the greatest prophet, but he was also a leader of his people. If you want to talk about a pure prophet who wasn’t involved in running the government, it’s hard to argue against Elijah as the greatest. He comes at the head of the class.
# 2: Though he lived almost three thousand years ago, he speaks to us with amazing contemporary power. His message speaks to at least five different groups of people.
1. He speaks to those who have a hard lot in life.
2. He speaks to those who feel alone in the world.
3. He speaks to those who feel that life has produced few results.
4. He speaks to those who feel helpless against the tide of evil.
5. He speaks to those who have failed, which includes, I suppose, all of us at one time or another.
# 3: We know almost nothing about his background. He’s a Tishbite, which means he’s from Tishbe in Gilead. To this day no one has ever found a village or a town named Tishbe. That simply means it was a small village up in the mountains. Gilead we know, and that’s important. Gilead was on the eastern side of the Jordan River. It would be in modern day Jordan, across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho. In fact if you ever go to Jericho, look to the east and you will see the mountains of Gilead. That’s really the only clue we have about this man.
Elijah was a mountain man. Because he came from the mountains, he was probably a bit uncouth. Because he came from the mountains, he wasn’t very refined. Because he came from the mountains, he wouldn’t have had the same level of education as those who were raised in the great city of Jerusalem. In that day people from the city tended to look down their noses at men from the mountains the same way people today sometimes look down at folks who come from the hills. Hill people. Hillbillies. Elijah was like an Old Testament hillbilly. Before you laugh too much, remember this. You don’t want to make those people mad. You’ll lose that argument. You might lose something else too. You don’t want to mess with mountain folks. They’re a tough breed.
“The Lord is My God”
Let’s do it again to just make sure we’ve got the picture:
They’re so far down in the pit, a city boy isn’t up for that kind of job. God didn’t want a seminary graduate. God didn’t want anybody too refined. God wanted somebody cut from rough cloth, somebody who didn’t mind wearing burlap, somebody with calloused hands, somebody whose nouns and verbs might not always agree. God wanted a man raised in the mountains who was not scared of wicked King Ahab, that evil toad squatting on the throne of Israel. When God wanted a man to go up against that evil king and his evil wife, he had to go to the mountains to find him.
When he did, he got a man. He didn’t get a boy. He got a man, and he sent that man into see the king. Elijah’s name tells us about his character. El is God, and Jah is like Jehovah or Yahweh. The i in Elijah means my. Literally Elijah’s name means The Lord is my God. “Hello. My name’s Ray. What’s your name?” “My name is The Lord is my God.” Any questions? “Hello, Ahab. Hello, Jezebel. My name is The Lord is my God.”
Ahab was not laughing. He didn’t see anything funny about that. You can imagine the color draining out of his face as this uncouth man from the mountains strides into his presence with a message from the Lord God on High. Oh, we need men like that today. Elijah was a troublemaker for the Lord. He was called to serve in a day of moral apostasy.
James 5:17 adds one fascinating fact about Elijah when it calls him a man “with a nature like ours.” The King James says he was a man of “like passions.” He was like you and he was like me. Read the story the story and see for yourself. Elijah had his ups and downs. He was a little rough around the edges. Not so polished. Not so refined. You’re not going to have Elijah over to watch the World Series because you don’t know when he’s going to go off. He’s that kind of man. When he gets a message from God, he’s going to take action. You’re not going to talk him out of it either. As we will see, he was far from perfect. He’s got a temper, and he is prone to depression and discouragement. That’s why James uses him as an example for us to follow. Though he was an imperfect mountain man, he was also a man of prayer and enormous faith in God. And that’s why he’s in the Bible.
Consider what he said to Ahab: “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). What was his secret? What made him tick? The answer is right here.
First, he believed in the living God. “Ahab, my God is alive. What about yours? You worship Baal, who lives during the wet season and dies during the dry season. I serve the living God. I believe in the living God.”
Second, he served the covenant God. He calls him “the God of Israel.”
Third, he lived in the presence of God. “The God … before whom I stand.” Proverbs says the fear of the Lord brings safety. When Elijah stood before Ahab he was not afraid because Elijah said “I stand before Almighty God. Ahab, you are nothing to me.” One reason we are not bolder and more courageous is because we have more respect for men than we do for Almighty God. The fear of man brings a snare but he who trusts in the Lord will be kept safe. So that is no small thing when Elijah says “I stand in the presence of God.” As far as he was concerned, Ahab didn’t even matter. All he did was show up and deliver God’s message.
Fourth, he obeyed the call of God. “There shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” What does that mean? Ahab worshiped Baal, and Baal was the god of fertility. The Canaanites believed Baal appeared in the thunderclouds and the rainstorms so they set up their altars on mountaintops so they could be closer to their god. When people came to worship Baal, they encountered the men and women who served in the priesthood. There were two parts of the religion of Baal—illicit sex and child sacrifice. If you were praying for rain, you would offer your sacrifice and then you would have a sexual encounter with a priest or a priestess of Baal. They believed that somehow that sexual act joined them with the Baal, the god of fertility. And if things were really, really bad you would bring your children and you would offer them to Baal. It was a religion of perverted sex and child sacrifice in the name of personal peace and affluence. Nothing in three thousand years has really changed.
A Radical Man
You know what the story of Elijah is? It’s the story of a truly radical man. The word radical from the Latin word radix, meaning root. So many of us live in the clouds and we wonder why we have no courage. Elijah was a man who got down to the root of things. You know what a radical Christian is? A radical Christian is nothing more than somebody who’s gotten down to the root issues of life and figured out what matters and what doesn’t matter. And Elijah had figured it out.
One final word and I am done. I think our young people have figured this out better than people my age. I think the up and coming generation of Christian young people are much more radically oriented for Jesus than we are. We need to catch up with the next generation. They have figured it out that this world is pretty plastic and this world is pretty empty, and that if you follow the ways of this world you are going to be empty at the end. God bless those radical young Christians who have gone down to the root issues of life.
When Elisha saw Elijah go up into heaven he cried out “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” And I say to you today, “Where are the Elijahs of the Lord God?” May God raise up in our day a new generation of Elijahs who will stand in the name of the Lord.
Our heavenly Father, we thank you for the example of a man who had no fear because he feared you so much. O God, we live in such tumultuous, amazing, frightening, exciting, unsettling days. O God, in these days of moral decay, raise up again an army of Elijahs. I ask you to start it this week. I ask you to do it among those who read these words. And I ask you to do it in my own heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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