The Holy Scriptures are timeless. All kinds of people throughout the ages have been drawn to discover it. One of the reasons we are interested in the Bible and become tethered to its contents is that we often resonate deeply with many of its characters.
A good and healthy spiritual exercise is to connect and project yourself into the pages of God’s Word. To relate, express, and find a common human condition with ancient believers is a means of strengthening your faith, uncovering your own spiritual journey, and paying attention to the soundings of your soul.
Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about through speaking of my own life and the life of a famous biblical character….
I feel like Elijah. Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who acted with unusual faith, single-handedly took on the ungodly Queen Jezebel, sparked a national revival, fell into a dark depression, allowed God to extend him pastoral care and comfort, learned to not journey alone in his faith through mentoring another great prophet of Israel, Elisha, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
As far as prophets go, we have a great deal of information on Elijah in the biblical accounts. Our introduction to him goes as follows: “Elijah was a prophet from Tishbe in Gilead. One day he went to King Ahab and said, ‘I’m a servant of the living LORD, the God of Israel. And I swear in his name that it won’t rain until I say so. There won’t even be any dew on the ground.” (1 Kings 17:1). And it happened just as Elijah said it would.
I’m a believer in making simple observations of the Bible. What stands-out to me foremost is Elijah’s solitary behavior. He initiated and acted alone. Elijah saw the systemic evil of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign in Israel and he boldly spoke truth to power. Whether Elijah had thought through the consequences of his words or not, we don’t know. But we are aware that this was understandably not received well, at all.
If Elijah was alone before, now he is driven to a life of solitude with only ravens for company (1 Kings 17:5-6). I resonate deeply with Elijah on this. I tend to think in organization and order. When I see systems in place which oppress, hurt, and damage people instead of helping them to succeed, thrive, and flourish, it disturbs me. Elijah was a solitary kind of guy, that is, until a system of injustice was in power. Then, he used his speech to agitate for what is right.
In many jobs I have had throughout my life, I’ve had a kind of “Elijah” experience. I see systemic issues which keep marginal people on the outside. Meanwhile, those on the inside enjoy the perks of power. Sometimes I’ve been fired for calling-out corporate owners and vice-presidents, church elders, and denominational leaders for their exclusive policies and procedures which only benefit themselves.
This might sound commendable, except for the fact that I almost always acted alone on my own initiative without building a coalition of other concerned people. Instead, I tended to think that I was the only one who cared and stepped forward, making myself a target that people couldn’t miss. I wonder if Elijah, like me, was thoughtful and introverted with a close relationship with his God, yet with a fear of human relationships.
The event in Elijah’s life which defined him as a great prophet was the showdown with the four-hundred fifty prophets of Baal, of whom the Israelites had religiously prostituted themselves. You don’t get any more John Wayne than one person versus four-hundred fifty. In one of the best sarcastic statements you’ll find anywhere, Elijah said to the prophets of Baal who spent the entire morning trying to get their god to respond: “Pray louder! Maybe Baal is daydreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.” (1 Kings 18:27, CEV)
Elijah statue on Mount Carmel
Sometimes, for me, it seems easier to confront four-hundred fifty people than have an intimate encounter with one person. I often find it more effortless to preach to thousands of people (of which I’ve done many times) than to connect meaningfully with one of them. To me, Elijah sometimes seems like a contradiction, having within himself a great capacity for faith along with an equally large expanse of fear.
This bundle of contradiction is seen in the aftermath of the national revival Elijah helped to spark. Through a miraculous display of the living God responding to Elijah’s sacrifice, the prophets of Baal were done away with (literally) and the worship of Israel’s God was immediately returned. Queen Jezebel, the chief architect of establishing Baal worship in Israel, was not having this revival of Israelite religion. A deeply symbolic heavy rain came with it, ending three years of drought, which only made Jezebel angry and on a mission.
Jezebel got a message straightaway to Elijah: “You killed my prophets. Now I’m going to kill you! I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.” (1 Kings 19:2). The prophet who took on an entire establishment and saw the miraculous done right in front of his eyes had this response to the wicked queen: he was afraid, ran away, and said to God, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)
Elijah was, in contemporary terms, burned-out and exhausted – and he became terribly depressed. It’s as if Elijah had identified himself with taking down the establishment for so long that when it happened, he was lost. Who was he now? The scaffolding of prophetic witness was gone, and Elijah was left face-to-face with his naked self.
I feel Elijah’s pain. I know the sense of laboring to do good and being spiritually and emotionally spent to the point of just wanting to die and be done with all the brokenness of this old fallen world. I have felt the awkwardness of identifying with a role, and when that role is gone there is only my true self and the God I serve.
But God, the ultimate spiritual caregiver, sent his angel to help Elijah in his broken state. He fed him, let him sleep, and sent him on a sacred journey to growth as a transformed person. Rather than exhort Elijah in his penchant for solitary action, God simply asked him a question: “Why are you here?” After listening to Elijah express his narrow thinking on how the world works, God simply asked him again: “Elijah, why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:9-14)
That simple question lingered with Elijah and changed him. From that point forward, Elijah seems to move with a quiet confidence that doesn’t come from a place of acting alone. He doesn’t carry the world on his shoulders. He isn’t quick to identify himself as a prophet. His zeal for God remains yet is focused into including others. Elijah goes from his sacred encounter with God and finds Elisha, who, by all appearances, is just a plain non-descript Israelite farmer. No longer does Elijah walk alone. His protégé, Elisha, is with him until the end of his life here on this earth. And when Elijah is gone, Elisha inherits a double-portion of his mentor’s spirit and goes on to be a powerful prophet in his own right.
One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was, after going through a debilitating depression, I made it my aim and goal to mentor others in the faith. I never went for a solo pastorate, always looked to build into the lives of younger ministers and found the value of traveling with companions in my pilgrimage of faith.
Unlike Elijah, I’m still on this earth and not likely to be swept up in a chariot of fire anytime soon. I’m still figuring out who Tim Ehrhardt really is underneath the academic degrees, ministry successes and failures, and all the roles and responsibilities in my life. There’s both faith and fear wrapped up in it all. I still struggle with the old lies that my identity is in what I have, what I do, and in the attention and accolades of others. I continue to wrestle with the compulsion to reform church and society and find it difficult to savor what is already present.
I see Elijah as a prophet with a deep faith that influenced everything he said and did. Yet, at the same time, he was a flawed man who was often characterized and paralyzed by fear and maybe acted from a place of self-righteousness more than he realized. What is clear to me, however, is that Elijah saw himself transformed as he allowed his God to care for him in ways that changed his life forever. And that is the kind of spirit I’d like to inherit from my spiritual ancestor.