Obadiah: A Good Man in a Hard Place
1 Kings 18:1-15
March 7, 2006
Ahab was angry and that wasn’t good news.
It wasn’t just that he was having a bad day or a bad week or even a bad month. For Ahab things had gone bad for the last three years. That’s a long stretch of bad luck, and it was bound to make a man grouchy, nervous, tense, upset, uptight, irritable, frustrated, and prone to losing his temper. You didn’t want to be around the king when he was in a bad mood, which was most of the time.
Thoughtful observers of the court could pinpoint the exact moment when things began to go south. It happened the day that a strange man named Elijah came to the king’s court in Samaria. The man they called a prophet of the living God had declared that there would be no more rain or dew in Israel. It wasn’t a long speech. In fact, no one could remember anyone ever making a shorter speech to the king. And it wasn’t as if Elijah had been scared. If anything, he seemed almost eerily calm, as if he wasn’t afraid of anything the king could do to him. This strange man from the mountains of Gilead had walked in, delivered his one-sentence message, and then he suddenly disappeared.
Elijah’s Disappearing Act
It was the disappearing part that got to Ahab. That plus the drought and the famine. After Elijah vanished into thin air (or so it seemed), he evidently took the rain with him because just like that, the weather report for Samaria was always the same: clear skies, plenty of sun, no clouds and no rain. Thus it had been for over three years.
The first few months had not been hard because you could always find some food and a bit of water if you knew where to look. But as the days passed the storehouses emptied, the streams dried up and a man with a bucket of water possessed a commodity more precious than gold. Soon the reports filtered in of crops that would not grow, of fields turning brown, of ground turned hard, of donkeys collapsing and cows that gave no milk. Slowly the poor began to starve to death. The king had to do something.
No wonder he was angry and upset. He was the most powerful man in Israel (or so he thought), and yet he was helpless to stop the drought. No matter how many prayers he offered to Baal, the heavens were shut up and the rain would not come. To make matters much worse, Elijah had disappeared. Vanished with the wind. No one knew where he was, no one had seen him since that fateful day when he spoke his one-sentence message from God.
Where had he gone?
The king had stopped at nothing to answer that question. That’s why he sent soldiers on a manhunt to the surrounding nations. In his frenzied paranoia to capture Elijah, he not only searched in other countries, he made their leaders swear they didn’t know where the prophet was. But try as he might, he couldn’t find the mountain man who brought drought and famine to his land. Evidently it never occurred to him to search the ravines east of the Jordan, and somehow Elijah escaped notice while living with the widow in Zarephath.
Now at last the word of the Lord came to Elijah again. “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land” (1 Kings 18:1). It must have come as a relief to Elijah to know that the time had come to confront the wicked king once again. Elijah was a preeminently a man of action, and I do not doubt that many nights he must have wondered why he was languishing by the brook and in the widow’s home while a tide of wickedness swept over his homeland. Surely he must have prayed and asked the Lord to do something. Perhaps he dreamed up various plans and strategies, but whatever he thought and however he prayed, it is entirely to Elijah’s credit that he did nothing until God gave him the green light.
We all understand it is difficult for men of action to be removed from the spotlight. Fortune favors the bold, and the world bends to the man who does not sit and wait but seizes the tide. Carpe Deum! Seize the day! Surely there was more than a little of this in Elijah’s bold, fiery nature. Yet when sent into obscurity by the Lord, he instantly and uncomplainingly obeyed. How few there are who would do that today. The spotlight beckons and we come running. But not Elijah. He waited until God’s time had ripened, until the fullness of God’s purposes could be revealed. Only then did he go in search of Ahab.
Elijah, Meet Obadiah
But it was not Ahab that he met. As he journeyed from Zarephath to Samaria, Elijah met Obadiah who was in charge of Ahab’s palace. In modern terms, we would say he was Ahab’s chief of staff, his right hand man, the one who kept everything running smoothly. He took care of all the details so that Ahab could busy himself being king of Israel. If you stop to think about it, Obadiah must have been a man of considerable talent because this was a position with enormous responsibility. Obadiah was in charge of everything that happened in the palace. He had oversight of all the servants, the waiters, the helpers, and all the people who came in and out to see the king. This certainly meant that Ahab must have known him well and placed a great deal of trust in him. Get the wrong person in such a position and your reign might be very short. Find the right person and your life suddenly becomes a lot easier. We all understand that there is the man who sits on the throne, and there is the man behind the throne who makes it all happen. The man on the throne gets the publicity, but it’s the unseen man who deserves the credit. That was Obadiah.
And it is precisely at this point that the story becomes fascinating because the Bible tells us two different, and seemingly contradictory facts:
1) Ahab was a wicked man who did more evil than all the kings that preceded him.
2) Obadiah was a godly man who feared the Lord from his youth.
How did it come to pass that a godly man should be in charge of the palace for such a wicked man? We do not know the answer because the Bible tells us nothing about Obadiah’s family background. This is what we know about Obadiah:
1) He was a devout believer in the Lord (v. 3)
2) He feared the Lord from his youth (v. 12).
3) He hid 100 prophets of the Lord in a cave to keep Jezebel from killing them (v. 4).
4) He also supplied those prophets with food and water to keep them alive (v. 4).
Obadiah has been described as a “palm in the desert” because he stood for the Lord in a time of great national apostasy. When others were turning to idolatry, this man, elevated to a high position, would not bow the knee to Baal. He somehow managed to serve the Lord and to keep his high position even while serving a king bent on leading the people into a spiritual freefall.
Meyer vs. Spurgeon
As I have studied the commentators, I find them divided in their evaluation of his character. F. B. Meyer sees him a symbol of a believer caught in spiritual compromise:
Obadiah did not believe in carrying matters too far. Of course he could not fall in with this new order of things, but then there was no need for him to force his religious notions on everyone. He was often shocked at what he saw at court and found it hard to keep still, but then it was no business of his, and it would not do to throw up his situation, for he would be sure to lose it if he spoke out. He was often sad at heart to witness the sufferings of the prophets of the Lord and almost inclined to take up their cause, but then a single man could not do much. Perhaps he could help them better in a quiet way by keeping where he was, though it might sometimes be a little strain on his principles. The poor man must often have been in a great strait to reconcile his duty to Jehovah with his duty to his other master, Ahab.
I must say that I find those words somewhat unfair and see nothing in the text to substantiate them. I find myself more in agreement with Charles Spurgeon who called Obadiah an example of “Early, Eminent Piety.” He means that God ordained that Obadiah be raised in the fear of the Lord from his youth. And then it pleased the Lord to place this godly man in a position that must have been very difficult for him, serving a wicked man like Ahab. Spurgeon also makes a point that, while it cannot be proved, makes sense to me. He suggests that Elijah probably didn’t have much patience with Obadiah’s hesitation. When Elijah told him to go tell Ahab where he (Elijah) was, Obadiah was plainly afraid to go. He thought it was a virtual death sentence for himself because all he knew was that Elijah had shown up at the king’s courts three years earlier and then suddenly disappeared without a trace. And now Elijah shows up again. If Obadiah goes to the king and says, “I’ve found Elijah,” how does he know that Elijah won’t disappear again? To me that’s a perfectly logical question. Obadiah was counting the cost before opening his mouth, something Jesus himself advised us to do. I think it is clear that Obadiah doesn’t mind dying for what he believes, but he doesn’t want to be killed for no reason at all.
Serving Christ in the Air Force
Following Christ doesn’t mean giving up your common sense. When believers in China worship behind closed doors, is it wrong to close the curtains so as not to draw attention to your meeting? Is this not what Jesus meant when he told his disciple to be wise as serpents but harmless as doves? And what about the biblical injunction to walk circumspectly, which means to walk with your eyes wide open, looking around you at all times. This week I had the privilege of spending several hours with an exceptional young man who serves as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He has just written a book called Sex and the Single Guy: Winning Your Battle for Purity. When I asked him how others feel about his strong faith, he told me that he had thought about it a lot and had asked other Christians in the Air Force who had served a long time how they balanced their faith and their military careers. His answer boiled down to this. The best way to serve Christ in the military is to do your job with excellence every single day. He said he doesn’t have to talk about his faith overtly because by serving well, others notice what he does and eventually doors open for conversations about the Lord. It isn’t profitable to make a public show about his faith because that only antagonizes other people. But it also became clear to me that here was a young man with rock solid convictions who would not compromise just to get ahead in his career. He’s young and just starting out, and I imagine that he will be put in some tough places where he’ll have to think carefully about how to respond as a Christian. But so what? That’s true of everyone who names the name of Christ. A godly high school principal has to think carefully about how much or how little to say about the Lord when he is on the job. A Christian judge has to balance the demands of his job with the convictions of his heart. It’s the same for lawyers and pharmacists and teachers and businessmen and women and anyone who rubs shoulders with the people of the world. You will often find yourself in situations where you need the wisdom of Solomon to know how to respond without compromising your convictions. Sometimes you’ll know what to do, and you have to find the courage to do the right thing. Occasionally you will have to do things that others will not understand.
How can anyone criticize Obadiah for hiding the prophets of the Lord from Jezebel? If he had been found out, surely she would have had him put to death on the spot. He knew that, and he hid them anyway, and he risked his life to give them food and water. Say what you will about the man, but Obadiah is no coward.
Let me go back to Spurgeon’s point for just a moment. He begins his sermon this way:
I suspect that Elijah did not think very much of Obadiah. He does not treat him with any great consideration, but addresses him more sharply than one would expect from a fellow-believer. Elijah was the man of action — bold, always to the front, with nothing to conceal; Obadiah was a quiet believer, true and steadfast, but in a very difficult position, and therefore driven to perform his duty in a less open manner. His faith in the Lord swayed his life, but did not drive him out of the court.
That makes good sense to me. Sometimes our eagerness to judge other believers stems less from spiritual insight and more from differences in personality. Elijah could never have served in Ahab’s court. Never! Such a thought would have been abhorrent to him. Why would he, a prophet of God, serve in the court of a man given to such wickedness? But that was evidently exactly where God had placed Obadiah.
No Cookout For Them!
Elijah was a mountain man, not suited to the refined life of a king’s court.
Obadiah had the training and temperament to serve the king well. He would not have survived long in the mountains of Gilead.
If Elijah didn’t understand Obadiah, and if Obadiah feared Elijah, it is perfectly understandable. I don’t think Obadiah would have invited Elijah over for a cookout, and if he had, I doubt that Elijah would have come. Many years ago I heard it explained this way. In the Lord’s army there are prophets and there are priests. The prophets are called by God to speak boldly, rebuking sin and calling people to righteousness. The priests are called by God to see the hurting people all around them and to minister healing in Jesus’ name. We see the dichotomy often in dealing with moral issues like abortion and gay rights. There are those who are called to denounce these sins, and there are those who are called to minister to those hurt and ruined by these sins. I have observed that the prophets rarely understand the priests, and the priests don’t appreciate the prophets. Prophets often look at the priests as soft and weak, while the priests see the prophets as harsh and uncaring. But both are called by the Lord and both have important jobs to do.
Someone has to speak out and take the heat.
Someone has to bind up the wounded.
Someone has to declare God’s Word boldly.
Someone has to help the hurting.
Someone has to stand and fight.
Someone has to take care of the causalities.
The army can’t be all fighters and no healers. And it can’t be all healers and no fighters. You need both, and you need both at the same time even when they don’t always see eye to eye.
It would be easy but simplistic for me to say, “Can’t we all get along?” Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. If we can’t always work together, at least we can hold our convictions in love, understanding that not everyone is called to do what we are called to do. For every Elijah, there are a dozen Obadiahs. And the prophet needed Obadiah whether he knew it or not. For it was Obadiah who paved the way for the prophet to meet the king again.
Elijah Needs Obadiah
Thank God for every Elijah who stands in the gap, proclaiming God’s truth without fear or favor. Thank God for every pastor who stands for righteousness and takes the heat for it and doesn’t flinch. And God bless those pastors who go on Larry King and say the same thing on CNN that they say in their pulpits on Sunday morning. God bless them a thousand times for not backing down when they sit next to Deepak Chopra who to his credit doesn’t back down from his New Age nonsense. We might as well be at least as bold about our faith as the people of the world are about what they believe. So God bless Franklin Graham for saying on TV that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Let him go ahead and say it even if some people don’t like it.
But Elijah isn’t the whole story. He can’t do his job without Obadiah to help him. And there are more Obadiahs than Elijahs in the world. God bless every Christian school teacher who prays for her students, who knows their names, and who strives to live for Christ while teaching in the public schools. God bless every Christian doctor and lawyer and every Christian businessman and woman who see their job as part of their calling from the Lord.
If you are an Elijah, do not despise Obadiah who serves where you could not serve.
If you are Obadiah, do not reject Elijah who does what you could not do.
Would it have been better for Obadiah to have resigned his position? Not necessarily.
Joseph served in Pharoah’s court.
Mordecai waited at Ahasuerus’ gate.
Daniel served the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar.
Philippians 4:22 tells us there were “saints” in Caesar’s household.
God has always his people in some very unlikely places. And he sometimes calls others to do things that we ourselves simply could not do. If God has called them, he will supply them and give them whatever they need. To say this is not to make any allowance for spiritual compromise because if you compromise your principles, you would be better off not calling yourself a Christian at all. Those who serve Caesar (or some wicked boss) may find that they, too, must hide God’s prophets at considerable risk to themselves. It’s never easy to serve Jesus, and it’s not getting any easier.
God has all sorts of people in his family. Elijah had a rough road from the beginning, but it wasn’t easy to be in Obadiah’s shoes either. Both men served the Lord, and in this case, we stop to give a word of praise for Obadiah, a small link in the big chain of God’s purposes.
Faithfulness counts with the Lord. Remember Obadiah, God’s “palm in the desert.” He was a good man in a hard place who did the right thing when it mattered most. God bless him and God bless everyone who follows in his steps. Amen.