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Cover image: “Answered by Fire” by Rob Joseph.
1 Kings 17-19
I am the law and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life… This is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me
What we call the Old Testament, Jesus referred to as “the law and the prophets.” The Lord intends everything in the Old Testament to bring us to Christ. As our goal in life is to “come unto Christ and be perfected in him,”2 the Old Testament becomes a precious and invaluable guidebook.
How does the story of Elijah help us come unto Christ?
We come unto Christ as Elijah did:
- By exercising simple faith
- By obeying the Lord decisively
- By listening to the “still small voice” of the Spirit
The Lord must have had great confidence in Elijah, a prophet who appears without introduction in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings. His name means “my God is Jehovah,” a significant message in itself in a time when Israel was “halting” between faithfulness to Jehovah and the worship of foreign gods. He began his ministry with this fearful announcement to the idolatrous King Ahab of the northern kingdom: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.”3
According to Elder Henry B. Eyring, “Elijah was a great prophet with great power given him by God. He held the greatest power God gives to His children: he held the sealing power, the power to bind on earth and have it bound in heaven.”4
What was the purpose of sealing the heavens so no rain would fall?
It was a particularly fitting punishment for Israel. The foolish King Ahab had taken as his wife Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Zidon, which was a Canaanitish city. Jezebel brought with her the idolatrous worship of her national god, Baal Hadad, who was reputedly the lord of rain and storms. Ahab built for her a temple to Baal Hadad in Samaria and provided means for a major cult to be established. Altars to Baal Hadad were built throughout the land of Israel, usually on high places, and elaborate sacrifices offered in hope of rain and fruitful harvests.
So it was appropriate that Elijah would seal the heavens so no rain would fall. For three and a half years,5 drought prevailed and famine followed.
In this story we see the same basic pattern we have encountered throughout the Old Testament. The people are faced with two choices: To serve the true God of Israel or to serve a counterfeit. The state religion of Israel had become syncretistic – a mingling of the worship of Jehovah with the worship of “other gods” – in express violation of the first and second of the Ten Commandments. Wealthy and influential Israelites supported this accommodation with the world. Powerful forces sought the death of Elijah, so the Lord sealed the heavens and commanded his prophet to hide in the wilderness.
The three-and-a-half-year period of drought is suggestive. Many have interpreted this time period as significant. Both Daniel and John indicate that the period of trouble, or apostasy, before the Lord’s return will consist of “time, times, and an half,” or one year plus two years plus half a year, which equal three and a half years.6 In the symbolic language of scripture, this famine period might foreshadow the 1260 years (days) of apostasy, or spiritual famine spoken of by John the Revelator.7 The prophet Amos predicted: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”8
This would be a period without prophets, without revelatory guidance from the Lord, a period in which the Church, or the true Israel, would go into hiding. Again, this period of Elijah’s retreat from the world might foreshadow the time when the true Church of Jesus Christ, as symbolized in Revelation by a woman, would be forced to “fly into the wilderness”: “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”9
Exercise the Simple Faith of the Widow of Zarephath
Rejected by the people of Israel, nearly starving in the wilderness, Elijah was commanded by God to flee to the Gentile city of Zarephath, one of the towns of the Zidonians. Again we see a pattern at work – when the pride of the covenant people cause them to reject Him, God is ready to minister among the poor and meek of the earth, whoever they may be. He is no respecter of persons.10
Jesus Himself used the widow of Zarephath as a symbol of His regard for all God’s children without regard to any illusion of entitlement they may have: “I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.”11
So Elijah followed the Lord’s commandment: “Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.
He arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.
And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.
And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.
For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.
She went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.
And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.12
The widow woman represents the poor of the earth who have often been the most receptive to the message of the Savior. When Jesus began His ministry, he announced: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted.”13
As Jesus was sent to bring good tidings to the poor, so Elijah prefigures the Savior in his mission to the widow, who stands for all of the poor and rejected of the earth. In a time of famine, this poor Zidonian widow would have been at the bottom of the social ladder, her little household the last to receive any help from anyone in the pagan Phoenician kingdom.
But because she exercised great faith in the prophet and promises of God, “she and her house did eat many days.” Figuratively, the bread of life and the oil of eternal light are available in infinite quantities to those who will exercise a simple faith in the Lord: “The meal shall not waste, neither the cruse of oil fail.”
Still, the question arises: Why did the prophet require her to give her last morsel of food to him rather than to her own starving son? Because this kind of sacrifice is ultimately required of everyone who would come unto Christ to be perfected in Him: “He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” This willingness to sacrifice all that we have is required of all who would receive the fullness of Christ, for the next verse reads, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”14
But the widow’s trials were not over. Her son fell so sick he was no longer able to breathe. Apparently guilt-ridden over some past sin, she pleaded with Elijah: “Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?”
In answer, Elijah took the boy into his loft and cried to the Lord for his life. “The Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” Elijah took the boy to his mother, who said “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth.”15 The widow’s faith in the prophet of God demonstrates the truth of this great principle: “Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”16
Jesus came to raise the dead just as Elijah did. The prophet demonstrated to the widow that the Savior of the world has not only the power to raise the dead but also to erase the effects of sin. This humble, giving woman – a single mother, the least regarded person in her society, plagued with guilt over some unnamed transgression of her own – found that the healing, forgiving, life-giving, life-sustaining power of God follows simple faith. She desperately needed a Savior, as we all do.
If the Lord Be God, Follow Him
At the end of the decreed three and a half years, Elijah was commanded to return to Israel and “show himself unto Ahab.” The time of Israel’s punishment was over, and a prophet would again be heard in the land.
The dramatic account of Elijah’s challenge to the 850 false priests of Jezebel’s religion on Mount Carmel then follows.
The peak of Carmel had been a holy spot for ages, and apparently an ancient altar to Jehovah had been allowed to fall into ruin. The mountain stood at a strategic point on the boundaries between Jezebel’s Phoenician kingdom of Zidon and the northern kingdom of Israel. The geography of the place is emblematic of the split allegiance of the Israelites: on the one hand they continued to honor Jehovah, but on the other they had been persuaded into serving the gods of the Phoenicians.
Thus Elijah’s challenge to the people: “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.”17
This failure to answer is typical of those who have lost faith. The faithless are the most miserable of people. They are plagued by fear – in this case, they are probably afraid of the oppressive state-sponsored priesthood and dare not speak. They are uncertain of everything and obviously have no answers to anything.
What follows is the classic demonstration of the futility of devotion to any god but God. The long, drawn-out, elaborate contortions of the priests of Baal remind us of the lengths to which people go to find meaning in their lives while turning their backs on God. Prime-time TV shows spectacle after spectacle of people in a frenzied search for happiness or love in all the wrong places.
When fire falls from heaven and consumes not only the sacrifice but the entire altar and the water in the ditch around the altar, we are reminded that the sacrifice of the Savior of the world brings total clarity, complete security, and unbounded forgiveness for sin.
There is no heartache, no longing for answers, no sin, no infirmity that the Great Atoner cannot reach and heal because of the infinite scope of His unique sacrifice.
And with this demonstration of the power of Jehovah, the rain begins to fall in torrents. Is it possible that we see here a prefiguring of the latter days when the three and a half “years” of famine are ended and life-giving revelation begins to pour once more from the heavens?
Every day we are faced with choices – will we obey the Lord or not? Will we cheat, lie, steal, look at forbidden things? Will we pray and study His word as He has commanded us to do? Will we follow the “gods” of the world and forget the God we owe everything to? Will we “disagree” with the prophet of the Lord in our vanity, believing that somehow we know better? Will we drop a criticism here and there, postpone paying our tithing, neglect our Church callings, skip Family Home Evening?
Of these choices, President Gordon B. Hinckley has said: “These are little things, but they are important things. They bring to mind the great contest between the prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal. Said Elijah on that occasion, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.'”18
Listen to the Still Small Voice of the Spirit
Jezebel’s fury at the defeat of her priests meant that Elijah’s life was once again in danger. Apparently, no one raised a hand to help him. So Elijah fled to Mount Sinai, to that place where Moses had first encountered the Lord in the burning bush, seeking some indication that his work was not all in vain.
This was Elijah’s deepest moment of sorrow. He had done his best, performed miracles, opened the heavens – and still Israel remained faithless. In despondency, “he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”19
How often have we felt this way? Perhaps our Church calling isn’t going well. Maybe we do our best to teach a youth class and they don’t seem responsive. Maybe we home- or visit-teach someone who wishes we would go away. Maybe we’re on a mission and no one will listen, no one will even open the door. Maybe we have a wayward child or a spouse who doesn’t seem to care. Despair seems inescapable.
At these times the best thing to do is to follow the example of Elijah. He retreated to the holy mountain – we can retreat to the temple. And there he waited on the Lord for answers, for strength and succor. And there on the mount the Lord taught him the most important lesson any of us can learn.
Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.20
The lesson here is that the voice of God is, as the Book of Mormon says, “a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it did pierce even to the very soul.”21 It is a voice that does more than just communicate – it also heals, comforts, and reassures. As President Thomas S. Monson says, “The language of the Spirit is gentle, quiet, uplifting to the heart, and soothing to the soul.”22
To come unto Christ is, in part, to learn to hear that voice. We cannot control it, cannot call it down whenever we wish. But we learn to recognize it, and as we do, we learn to abide by it, to listen to the direction of that voice, and to obey its promptings. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said:
Every communication from our Heavenly Father… “shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.” We cannot force spiritual things.
In most cases, “his own way” is not the thunderous interruption or the blinding light, but what the scriptures call “the still small voice.” Some have misunderstood this principle. As a result, some have looked exclusively for the great manifestations that are recorded in the scriptures and have failed to recognize the still, small voice that is given to them. This is like making up our minds that we will learn only from a teacher who shouts and that we will refuse to listen to even the wisest teaching when it comes in a whisper.
We need to know that the Lord rarely speaks loudly. His messages almost always come in a whisper.23
Elijah recognized that voice:
And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?
And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
To Elijah the Lord spoke reassuringly:
Go, return on thy way… Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room.
…Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal.24
So Elijah finds new meaning in his calling. The Lord sends him again to Israel with the news that his work has not been in vain – there are yet 7,000 Israelites who are faithful to Jehovah. Furthermore, he is to anoint a new king over Israel and call Elisha to be his prophetic successor.
If we are attentive to the still small voice, we too will hear this kind of reassurance from the Spirit. Clarity comes. A sense of direction comes. We will know the right path to take to come unto Christ.
So in the story of Elijah we discover three keys for coming unto the Lord Jesus Christ:
- We must exercise the simple faith of the widow of Zarephath.
- We must decisively choose to follow the commandments of the Lord – without “halting between two opinions.”
- We must learn to listen to the still small voice of the Spirit.
Joseph Smith held up Elijah as the great example of faith in the Son of God, and prayed that he himself might develop the faith of an Elijah. Let us then pray to our Father in Heaven for ourselves individually as the Prophet Joseph Smith did for himself:
Look down upon thy servant Joseph, at this time; and let faith on the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, to a greater degree than thy servant ever yet has enjoyed, be conferred upon him; even the faith of Elijah; and let the Lamp of eternal life, be lit up in his heart, never to be taken away; and let the words of eternal life, be poured upon the soul of thy servant; that he may know thy will, thy statutes, and thy commandments, and thy judgments to do them.25
1 3 Ne. 15:9-10.
2 Moro. 10:32.
3 1 Kings 17:1.
4 Eyring, Henry B. “Hearts Bound Together,” Ensign, May 2005, 77
5 James 5:17.
6 Dan. 12:7; Rev. 12:14.
7 Rev. 11:3.
8 Amos 8:11.
9 Rev. 12:14.
10 Acts 10:34.
11 Luke 4:25-26.
12 1 Kings 1:9-16.
13 Luke 4:18.
14 Matt. 10:37-39.
15 1 Kings 17:17-24.
16 Ether 12:6.
17 1 Kings 18:21.
18 Hinckley, Gordon B. “Believe His Prophets,” Ensign, May 1992, 50
19 1 Kings 19:4.
20 1 Kings 19:11-12.
21 Hel. 5:30.
22 Monson, Thomas S. “Peace in Our Savior,” Ensign, June 2005, 3
23 Oaks, Dallin H. “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 7
24 1 Kings 19:15-18.
25 Joseph Smith, “Reflections,” August 23, 1842, as quoted in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 536).