I Kings 19:9-18
“[Elijah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke 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 the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 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. 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.””
It is a very frequent feeling in ministry: abandonment. Exhaustion at the seemingly endless tasks, discouragement that there is no apparent fruit from our labor. It is easy to stick it to God, and ask him why he isn’t faithful. It is also easy to become self-absorbed and wonder what we’re doing wrong, what’s wrong with our methods, or perhaps we just “missed our calling” and are doing the wrong thing.
Elijah may have felt any or all of the above, and so he went and hid in a cave, nursing his wounds. But God did not ask him “what’s wrong?” But rather “What are you doing here?” Clearly, there was more work to be done, but Elijah was at his wits end.
When Elijah shared his woes with God as we often do, God does not seem sympathetic, but only tells him to go stand on the mountain. Perhaps Elijah wanted to see God bring down more fire from heaven as he had done on the mountain only a few days previous, and consumed an altar and its sacrifice. This is our expectation anyway. When we pour our efforts into his service we expect results. It’s like an exchange, we do our part, he does his and when we don’t see the results we think our efforts merit, we are tempted to complain at God that he is not moving. He’s not keeping his side of the bargain.
As with a student who can’t seem to get his lesson, God sighs and says, “Go stand on the mountain.” There God delivered what Elijah wanted; fire, hurricane winds and earthquake, but God was not in them. They were brought by God and demonstrated his power, but he was not in them. God shows many signs by his power. He works miracles, he commands all the powers of nature, but such things do not bring us closer to him. To receive God himself takes a humble and repentant heart, realizing that we have nothing to offer him, and nothing to demand of him. Or works are as filthy rags, and all our efforts are as useful as the dances of string puppets. What God seeks is a people that will be devoted to listening to him. To see God’s judgment and power we may gaze at his miraculous works, to know him we must cultivate the art of listening. Why should he come in the still small voice? Because in order for us to hear it we must shut up the clamor of our own sinful hearts. We have to set aside self-pity and self-righteousness and cover our faces with our cloak and go stand at the opening of the cave and listen.
When Elijah did this God asked him the same question he did before and Elijah gave him the same answer, but this time God revealed to Elijah his plan. The kings who sought his life would execute God’s will apart from Elijah’s work, and apart from Elijah’s great prophetic knowledge God had already set aside seven thousand people who were devoted to him. Elijah didn’t see results because the results belonged to the hidden God who speaks with a still small voice! The results that God sought was the humbling of Elijah, as he set aside time to come out of his little world and listen to his God.
As Jesus told his befuddled disciples when they were not able to cast out a demon “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Jesus shows us what sort of a relationship God desires with those who minister his word. Jesus always sought the quiet Gethsemane. He went to the mountain not to hide in a cave, but the listen to his father in prayer. So in the midst of our exhaustion he asks of us “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” But as we groan and turn over, we do not know that he is already taking the burden of our failures upon himself, for tomorrow he will be crucified.