The main events in themselves are remarkable and not difficult to understand. They take place on two mountains (Carmel and Sinai); the first events are public and of great power (Yahweh conquers Baal decisively), and the following events are private and of great power (Yahweh sends Elijah to initiate a period of violent judgment in Israel). What happens between the main events of 1 Kings 18 – 19 is what opens the door to misinterpretation, especially when readers concentrate on Elijah’s apparent motives.
Why does Elijah run so far from Jezebel? Many English translations explain along these lines: “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life” (1 Kings
19:3). First, much more in line with the Hebrew Masoretic Text is the translation: “When he saw [the danger], he arose and fled for his life.” The element of fear is added to most English translations by a textual variant. (For those who are interested: the Spanish RV 1960 translates this verse in agreement with the Masoretic Text.) Therefore, many English Bible readers understand Elijah’s flight as motivated by fear of Jezebel as much as or more than preservation of life. Second, although the trip was motivated initially by preservation of life, this
motivation in itself is insufficient to explain the rest of the journey. If Elijah is running for fear of Jezebel or to preserve his life, then his journey to Sinai is excessive. If Yahweh has protected him to this point as Obadiah testified, “As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’” (1 Kings 18:10), then certainly he would not need to take such a long trip through the desert to distance himself from Jezebel. But if Elijah went to Sinai for another reason, for example to file suit against Israel for its violation of the covenant sealed there (a motive which agrees with Romans 11:2), then his long trip makes sense. I believe this is the better option, and it leads us to translate the words of the angel of the LORD, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7), not in reference to the journey completed but as a preparation for the much longer and God-ordained journey described in verse 8.
Not only do many read here that Elijah is motivated by a fear of Jezebel, they combine it with Elijah’s supposed depression which they find in the verse: “And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (1 Kings 19:4). Without a doubt he is profoundly discouraged. But don’t the events of 1 Kings 19:5-8 encourage him? First Kings 19:8 portrays a strengthened and determined man, not a depressed one. Could it be that 1 Kings 19:4 does not reveal a continuous psychological state but a prayer of desperation that Yahweh answers by grace in the following verses?
For those who find Elijah motivated by fear and depression, he should be criticized roundly for whining and self-centeredness when he says, “I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). But if we see according to 1 Kings 19:8 a decisive man encouraged by God’s grace, Elijah’s complaint has a lot in common with other emotionally-charged and doctrinally-approved complaints in the Psalms: “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction, my precious life from the lions!”(Psalm 35:17) “I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (Psalm 38:8). “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! (Psalm 89:46-47) If we do not criticize David for his complaint in another cave: “Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains in me; no one cares for my soul” (Psalm 142:4), why would we criticize Elijah for the same?
In other words, if we think of 1 Kings 19 primarily as God’s criticism of Elijah, it may be that we have painted a distorted portrait in our minds of the prophets as people who are (or ought to be) primarily confident and secure rather than desperately dependent on Yahweh and His grace through prayer. It may be that we have so distorted the Biblical portrayal of a prophet that when we are confronted by verses describing their inability, we misunderstand this for weakness instead of their true strength. It could be that the common interpretation of 1 Kings 18 – 19 reveals just how far we are from understanding the true power of Yahweh’s prophets. It is interesting that the New Testament remembers Elijah’s weakness, not to chastise him but to set him up as an example: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:17-18).
But what convinces me the most that Yahweh approves of Elijah’s actions in 1 Kings 19 is that He decides in favor of his suit against Israel. He agrees with Elijah! “And the LORD said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death” (1 Kings 19:15-17). Now that Israel has not turned to Yahweh after three and a half years of drought and a decisive miracle displayed before their eyes, she will enter a period of harsher judgment characterized by inescapable violence. The judgment of Israel has become much more severe. Therefore, the following words, “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18) are not a reproof of the prophet but evidence of Yahweh’s sovereignty and grace in preserving a faithful remnant, exactly as the
apostle Paul sees this verse in Romans 11:2-5.
Therefore, if we have understood 1 Kings 18 – 19 correctly, we should not leave the reading meditating on the imagined faults of Elijah. We should see an impressive portrait of Yahweh’s persistence in calling His people to repentance, of His severe judgment against those who persist in sin and His secure grace through which He preserves a remnant from judgment.