The Cross in the Life of Elijah
by Harry Foster
(Published in "A Witness and A Testimony" magazine, 1940)
"Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body." (2 Cor. 4:10)Reading: 1 Kings 17:1; 18:10; 19:1-4; 21:20-21; 22:34-35, 37-38. 2 Kings 1:8-9; 2:11; 9:30,33,36.
I hope the selected verses from a number of chapters of the two books of Kings cover the essential feature of Elijah's life and ministry, a feature which is spoken of in New Testament language as of being always delivered unto death, that life, the life of Christ, may be manifested in us.
The Sentence of Death
If you were asked what were the outstanding characteristics of Elijah, possibly the immediate and obvious reply would be, The power of God. Perhaps of all the prophets he somehow expresses to us something of the enormous, tremendous energy of God. Or you might say the boldness and zeal which was so clearly and strongly seen in that life. While that is true and Elijah, of all the prophets, speaks to us of the power of God, it is also not without significance that there never was another prophet so often threatened with death as Elijah. It has been an eye-opener to me to realize that one of the great marks of this man was, what we should call in New Testament language, the Cross; or, shall we say, that he was being continually given over to death.
Of course, when the times are such as they were, death is everywhere threatening the people of God. It is no light and easy thing to live for God in a world like ours, where the prophets of the Lord are persecuted and hunted and slain by Jezebel. But I think that sometimes Elijah must have stopped and said to himself, Well, who am I that my life should be sought like this? We read of Ahab sparing no pains and no expense, hunting in every neighbouring land for this man, making the rulers of those lands swear that they had no knowledge of his whereabouts. We read the strong language of Jezebel who, with a terrible oath, swore to take away his life. We read how Ahaziah once, twice, and a third time sent a captain of fifty with his fifty to make Elijah come down; at their failure another fifty men; and when they did not return, another fifty. Surely we begin to realize that every man's hand seems to be against Elijah. In some peculiar and concentrated way, his life is sought.
Well, that is, of course, just the other side of the experience of a man who is afire with zeal for the Lord. The two things go together. It is no contradiction, and Elijah's life is sought again and again for this very simple reason, not because he is anything in himself, but because he stands in a downright, whole-hearted, uncompromising way for the Lord; and, dear friends, that means the constant assault of death.
You notice, of course, it is no theological matter with Elijah, nor was it with Paul, though his statement in 2 Corinthians may be taken and made the basis for theological reasonings in respect of our crucifixion with Christ, and of our being delivered over to death. But the apostle every day and in most practical and most painful ways knew the thing, not as theology, but as experience; and Elijah too is not fighting or being fought by death in some vague and visionary fashion, but in the most practical circumstances of daily life his life is sought. Why? Because he stands for the Lord.
There is an easier way, and I wonder whether perhaps with some of us the trouble has not been that, while we have with our heart longed to be consumed with zeal for the Lord, and have prayed and earnestly desired to know the power of God, when the practical issue has arisen, as it always does, we have found that this way, instead of being a way of enthusiastic accomplishment, is one of having a life sought; a way of suffering, of humiliation, of trial; and we have perhaps drawn back and said, "No, not that way! That cannot be the way!" Well, let us just notice again that even in the case of Elijah, who in the minds of many of God's people stands out as the great example of a man full of power, his own personal sense of things was not that of being full of power and getting on very well and prospering and doing the work of the Lord, but it was that he was being hunted for his life. That may encourage us or it may reprove us according as we have, or have not, hearts that love the Lord and choose everything for Him.
Then further, we mark that Elijah suffered in consequence of his own prayers. We opened with the statement that he went to Ahab and announced that there should be no rain. But the New Testament (James' Epistle) tells us that there was something that went before, that in the secret alone with God, Elijah had prayed: and now, in consequence, he is coming very, very near to starvation, being fed by the brook, and then finding even the brook dry up, and having to make that journey to the widow to feed on her last little morsel. All that; death threatening him in that realm, the bitter, hot pursuit by Ahab and the threatening of his life from that direction, and then that threat from Jezebel, was all the result of his praying. If Elijah had never prayed like that, he would never have been precipitated into those circumstances.
That gives us, perhaps, a new thought concerning prayer. How often we have prayed for the will of God, the glory of the Lord, as we have felt, and, like Elijah, have burned with desire to see the Lord's name honoured, but all the time with our prayers there has been the expectation that somehow in the Lord's honouring we would get honour; somehow, in the answer to our prayers, we would have a good time. Why, of course, if your prayers are answered, it will be very wonderful and very glorious, we will rejoice! Well, Elijah's prayer was answered and it meant that for three and a half years he was in danger of his life. But, you see, the real motive of that prayer was wholly for the Lord's glory. That was genuinely at the back of Elijah's heart, and surely if he had a modicum of foresight, he must have known that he would be involved in the fact. He must have known the cost, or realized something of what would be the cost, that he personally would have to pay if his prayer were answered. Well, that is the way of such prayer. It is a way of being delivered over to death that the prayer may be answered; not of just having some painful feeling while you pray, it is not that. The way is that of a very practical and uncomfortable experience of the suffering of death while the Lord is answering the prayer. I feel that most of us, perhaps, are in danger of making our fellowship with Christ in His suffering and the whole matter of our knowledge of the Cross one of some kind of vague feeling within us, instead of realizing that it works out in very practical things in daily circumstances of life: and it is there that so often we refuse it. That cannot be the Lord! We nullify the whole value of our prayer because when the Lord begins, when He only just begins, to answer our prayer, the things hits us, cuts us, wounds us, and we turn away and say, "It cannot be the Lord!" Now, Elijah was a man who prayed, and because he prayed he knew constant experiences of being delivered over to death.
Then we read on, after the great and wonderful exhibition of Divine power on Mount Carmel, to the further threat that came from Jezebel, and Elijah's having to flee for his life, and then to that strange and painful scene when, away alone in the wilderness, he himself asked the Lord to slay him: for this thing goes deeper and deeper as you go on. It passes more perhaps from the outward to the inward. A lot has been said about Elijah's losing his faith and being afraid of a woman, but anyone who has had any kind of measure of fellowship in a life such as Elijah's will know that he was not one scrap worried about whether Jezebel killed him or not. He reveals the true agony of his heart in his prayer to the Lord, "I am no better than my fathers." Elijah was not the first prophet; there had been others. They too had hurled themselves into the breach and sought to turn the tide, to turn God's people back again to Him, and they had failed; as far as can be seen, one by one they had failed. But Elijah out of a deep, deep experience, had seen the hand of God in great power and had heard the cry of the people, "Jehovah, He is God", and his heart had leapt with the joyful expectation that something really had been done in the hearts of God's people. But when Jezebel still stayed in her place, and was still in a position to impose her will, Elijah knew that nothing really vital had been done. Thus in the disappointment of it all, the sorrow of heart that, after all, that great scene on Mount Carmel had only been a superficial wave of emotion that had passed over the people, and not the turning of God's people back to God that he had been both looking for and praying for, his heart well-nigh broke and he asked the Lord to slay him; not because he was afraid of Jezebel, but because, in his deepest heart of hearts his consciousness was that as a prophet he was a failure. That, I am sure, was very necessary for Elijah.
We may find some culpable features in his attitude before the Lord, but probably that represents just one further deeper and most, necessary phase in this life of being delivered over unto death. There is a passing from the realm where things are largely outward and people are against you, to the realm where things are inward and from your own side you would rather the Lord killed you. You are disillusioned about yourself, about your ministry, and Elijah virtually, shall we say, handed in his resignation to God. He was no good as a prophet, and I believe that is just the point to which all of us need to come as servants of God, and for lack of that there has been so much weakness in seeking to build up that which is according to Divine pattern without the initial, fundamental, basic work being wrought deeply, as it was wrought in Elijah.
Even if we know, as Elijah knew, that the Lord has called, and have enjoyed the Lord's seal, the Lord's presence the Lord's word, as the fruit of the Cross; even with all that, we come to the place where, so far as we are concerned, we are at an end. It is not that as servants of the Lord we move on to another plane. At least, that is not our consciousness; not that we pass from one realm, perhaps to some extent earthly, to another more heavenly: pass from that which has a good deal of the marks of carnality about it to that which is more spiritual. It is something deeper than that. We pass right out, we are finished. That is where Elijah was.
There are other factors in his experience, one of which was undoubtedly the physical. God dealt with that by giving him sleep and food and drink. But the whole thing combined, whatever it was, had this effect, that Elijah, in his own heart of hearts, was a slain man. If he asked the Lord to slay him, it was because he already felt the sword in his heart, and it will not be strange to some of you to say that there are some things a good deal worse than facing danger of your life. That was no new experience to Elijah. He was not likely to be overwhelmed by being in danger, but when somehow the bitterness gets inside, the consciousness comes that after all it is all a failure, well that is tasting death. Elijah might have been slain and never have tasted death, but there in the wilderness he tasted death. Had he been a more superficial man, he would have gone on for months in the joy of what had happened on Mount Carmel. Had he been out for self-interest, that would have kept him going a long time, but it was because his heart was set on a real, true work of God that he could never be satisfied with anything less.
The Conquest of Death
Well, of course, there is the rest of that chapter, and something far bigger emerges from this. Elijah was not finished, after all. He was a man delivered over to death; but this is the remarkable thing, that he is a man who never died! Other prophets died; Elijah never died. The man whose life was most sought, the man who from without and from within, by starvation, by the sword, by wicked rulers, by companies of men, was hunted and hounded for his life, that man never died! He went up to heaven in a whirlwind. That is the blessed and wonderful paradox about this life, that after all you do not die. The Lord did not slay Elijah, nor did Elijah slay himself: he went on. That is the encouragement, the comfort, of it all. Oh, the Lord's purpose, however low He brings us, is not to slay us, not in that sense of a barren end. Elijah may feel, and some of us may feel, that things come to an end sometimes, but the Lord never intends an end like that, and we who are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, we live by Christ, and Christ's life reigns in us. Praise God, that is His intention all the time.
But more than that: the Lord does not need to take you so low just so that you can live. All the people of God will live. In Elijah's day there were seven thousand at least who lived. But have you noticed this further feature of Elijah's life, that, while he did not die, other people died? He slew the murderers: he slew death. All the saints will escape death and live, but I wonder how many of us will overcome death and slay it? That is the purpose of God. Now go through Elijah's life again, and you will find this, that he every time turned the tables against death, and the thing that would slay, was slain. The simplest and perhaps the happiest episode, because in this case no human life is involved, is the case of the widow. Do not forget that, when Elijah arrived at her house, she was just making last preparations in order to die: and Elijah came there, a dying man. He had not a crumb to eat. He was one worse than she was in himself; yet the remarkable thing is that not only did Elijah live, but the woman and her son lived. Life came into that house: death was overcome.
Look at the militant aspect of it also. Ahab would slay Elijah; but when the bow was drawn at a venture, the man who tried to disguise himself, the man who wore armour, the man who did everything that man can do to avoid the Divine sentence was the man who was found out. The place in his armour was discovered by an arrow shot at a venture, and he died. According to the word of the Lord he died, and if you read that pronouncement again, uttered as it was it was in Naboth's vineyard, you will find it was Elijah who spoke that word.
Then we have that occasion when he was so desperately broken. God gave him, as we have said, a sleep, and then some food: then another sleep, and more food, and in the strength of this he went on and came to the mount. There the Lord graciously appeared to him, and what the Lord said to him was, in effect: "Elijah, now that you have given in your resignation and are utterly broken and disillusioned about yourself and your ministry; now, Elijah, your real work is but beginning. The fire, the earthquake, the mighty wind, all these are but in a sense preparation, necessary preparation, but the still small voice is essentially My work." That came with a two-fold purpose to Elijah. He was reminded that all that had been had its value; there were seven thousand who were sustained by the prayers of Elijah, though they never knew and never thanked him; seven thousand, for all we know, kept in heart because of that bold public figure, Elijah. That may well have been a part of his ministry, but the outcome of it all is a train of events. He is to anoint Elisha, and Elisha in his turn will anoint Jehu, and the end of that train of events which emerges from Elijah's brokenness there in the wilderness is that Jezebel is slain according to the word of the Lord. God takes a long time to work. As far as we know, Elijah had gone to glory long before it happened; but it happened, and it all came out of Elijah's ministry.
I wonder whether you are seeing the implications of this as it has come to my own heart? The Lord delivers us unto death. It is a painful, terrible experience, but on the one hand we know He is going to bring us through. His end is life and not death. On the other hand, there is something more even than this. His purpose is, through us, to turn the tables on death and slay it. We do not want to become involved in any thought of slaying people. Ahab and Jezebel stand for spiritual evil, that which is out to murder the people of God. The man who feels the painful pressure of their murderous intents most is the man who in the end slays them by the word cf the Lord. That is what you and I have been chosen for; to escape death, yes, but to do more than that, to slay death, to triumph in life by Christ. Remember the fifty men. The disciples later on remembered that incident, and, when certain people would not receive the Lord, they said, "Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?" Oh how they had misunderstood! Elijah never called clown fire nor moved a finger to protect himself. They were moved by personal resentment that their Master had been rejected. In that personal way, because they had a grievance, they would slay other men. The Lord says, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of". Oh, dear friends, never let us think in terms of revenge, or of anything that is stirred in our hearts, because of what we suffer.
You see, these fifty came up and said, "Thou man of God... come down". It is not, "Elijah, come down". These men are defying God. They say, "Oh man of God, the king hath said, Come down": and fire came down out of heaven to devour them. Why? Because it is not Elijah that the attack is against. It is against the Lord. On the third occasion, indeed, the captain of that fifty recognized something of the Lord and he is not slain.
Thus, you see, the whole atmosphere and the whole thought of this life of Elijah is not that he is doing mighty things to justify himself, but that he becomes as it were a battleground for the glory of the Lord, and by his wholehearted submission to Christ, to God, his devotedness to the Lord, bearing the painfulness of death, tasting death, he nevertheless triumphs over death and destroys it, so that in the end he goes up to God. He never died, he is raptured. Because God lifts him up, you say. Yes, but because already there is wrought in him a victory over death. Already in his very being, there is, as it were, an answer to the challenge of death: as I have said, not just that mercy of the Lord protecting from death, but he is an overcomer in this sense, that there is a power of life in him which is death to death. That is why he is caught up, and I believe that also is, in the Lord's purpose, the basis of our being caught up. I sometimes tremble at the easy facile ideas I personally have had about the Lord's coming and about the rapture. I realize that tremendous age-long and eternal issues are involved in this thing. It represents the culmination of experience of a people delivered over to death, but not dying; and not only not dying, but triumphing in life, turning the tables on death, and slaying it.
Now, may the Lord strengthen our hearts that, however bitter may be the tasting of death, we may triumph in life by Christ the Lord.