Sermon preached on 1 Kings 18:1-19 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/19/2020 in Novato, CA.
One thing Ahab and Elijah agreed upon here is that it was troubling times for Israel. This was more than three years into the extreme drought which God had declared through Elijah – a drought that would not be lifted until God spoke through Elijah to lift it. But the drought was only a symptom of the underlying trouble during that time. The false religion of Baal and Asherah worship had spread throughout the nation, especially advocated by the government. Meanwhile there was a systematic effort under way at the same time to try to destroy the worship of the one true God. These were troubling times indeed in Israel, and such times especially call for discernment and prudence. Some among the faithful went into hiding, while others found a way to stay and serve God covertly. All the while, the ungodly continued to advance in wickedness. Let’s explore then these troubling times for Israel while also thinking about our own troubling times today.
Let’s begin then by looking at Ahab’s pursuits during these troubling times. Recall that Ahab is King over the northern kingdom of Israel. He’s the second king from the influential house of Omri. In chapter 16, we read that Ahab held the record of being the most evil king in the history of the ten-tribe nation of Israel. His infamy included marrying the evil pagan princess from Sidon, namely Jezebel. A wife has the opportunity to really bring out the best in her husband. Well, Jezebel brought out the best of Ahab’s evil. That evil included introducing Baal worship and Asherah worship as official state sponsored religion. These things come together as Ahab’s wife Jezebel not only was major advocate for this pagan worship, she also was the leader of persecuting the prophets of the LORD.
So, by this point three some years into the drought, we are told of one of Ahab’s pursuits. Surely, this was not all that he was about at that time. But it’s what makes the record of Holy Scripture. When there is great drought and therefore famine throughout the land, he’s concerned about his livestock, verse 5. So, he sets out on a pursuit to try to find them food. He literally takes matters into his own hands. He calls this Obadiah who was the head person in charge of Ahab’s whole household. That’s like a top position in Ahab’s court. Ahab instructs Obadiah to head out one direction in the land, and he’ll personally head the opposite direction. He hopes one or both of them find some amount of grass or vegetation to be able to feed the animals. He doesn’t want his animals to die.
Maybe if you belong to PETA, you’d be encouraged to hear Ahab having this great concern for his flocks and herds. But let us remember that Ahab is king over the whole nation. It would be nice to see that maybe he’s concerned for everyone’s animals in the country – but no, this is surely about Ahab’s own animals. And more than that, it would be good to see King Ahab showing some concern here about the people in the nation. Surely if the animals were starving then the people of Israel were starving during this severe famine. I understand this is somewhat an argument from silence. He may have had some concern about the people too. But the text chooses to emphasize here his concern about the animals and say nothing about any concern for the people.
In fact, this lack of concern by Ahab is brought out in the text in two ways here. One, Jezebel’s said in verse 4 to be pursuing “cutting off” the prophets of the LORD, i.e. killing them. Well, it’s the very next verse that says Ahab is pursuing to not lose his animals. But the literal language in the Hebrew is that so that none of his animals get cut off. In other words, the Hebrew contrasts Jezebel concern to cut off prophets while Ahab meanwhile is concerned to not cut off his animals. Ahab should have been concerned more to not lose the prophets of the LORD than losing his animals. In contrast, you have his servant Obadiah who feeds prophets secretly where Ahab’s focus is on feeding his animals. These contrasts are surely meant to show us that Ahab’s heart was in the wrong place.
Well, we do learn here of another pursuit of Ahab besides food for his animal. We learn that Ahab had also been pursuing Elijah. It’s possible he looked for Elijah more than he looked for food in the land. Per Obadiah’s account in verse 10, we learn that Ahab had searched out in every nation and kingdom for Elijah. He made people take oaths that they hadn’t found Elijah. Ahab had failed in his pursuit to find Elijah. I believe we should understand Ahab’s pursuit of Elijah in light of last chapter. Remember that 3 years earlier, as recorded in 17:1, Elijah declared in the name of the LORD that there would be this severe drought and it would not be lifted until he himself spoke to lift it. God then sent Elijah into hiding. The idea was that God hid Elijah away from Ahab and the rest of the nation so that Elijah would not be there to lift the drought. Apparently, Ahab searched high and low for Elijah, probably hoping he could somehow compel Elijah to lift the drought if he actually found him. But Ahab’s search for Elijah was to no avail.
I’ll note one last thing about Ahab’s pursuits. There’s one other pursuit not recorded here by Ahab. There is no record of him pursuing repentance. There’s no record of him admitting his sin and looking to call upon the Lord for forgiveness and grace. That is what King Solomon long before had said should be done, when he dedicated the temple, 1 Kings 8:35. He said that if in the future God shut up the heavens and stopped sending rain because of the people’s sinning against God, then the people should repent and pray to God for forgiveness that God might grant them rain upon the land. But there is no record of Ahab pursuing that.
So that’s a little reflection on Ahab’s pursuits here. Let’s turn now in our second point and consider this Obadiah and two of his fears that are mentioned here. The first is a great fear to have. It’s mentioned twice here, in verses 3 and 12. It’s the fear of the LORD. Scripture tells us elsewhere that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. This Obadiah was a follower of the one true God. It says he “greatly” feared the LORD, verse 3, and that he had followed God since his youth, verse 12.
Think of how that was expressed here. That meant that while his bosses’ wife was out trying to kill true prophets of the LORD, he was secretly hiding them. He somehow manages to hide a hundred of them, by fifties in a cave. But then he does something arguable more impressive. In the middle of this extreme drought and famine he manages to keep feeding these prophets bread and water as they are hiding out in this cave. I think of by analogy the quote from the book of Esther of “for such a time as this”. Just as God providentially made Esther queen to help save the lives of God’s people, so too here with Obadiah. Surely his position of great prominence would afford him the resources to feed a hundred prophets on the hideout that would have been challenging for a normal citizen to do. Yet, surely such a covert operation for someone of Obadiah’s position was especially risky. Surely, he was in a position to get caught more easily, and surely if he did get caught it would mean his certain death. But Obadiah gladly did this because he was a follower of the one true God. He feared God more than man.
But then we see another fear come up in Obadiah. It’s when he amazingly runs into Elijah as he’s out searching for grass for Ahab’s animals. Obadiah recognizes Elijah but can hardly believe his eyes, verse 7. “Is it you, my Lord, Elijah?” he asks. Don’t miss how awesome of a find that is! Ahab and the world have been looking for Elijah for three years, and Obadiah just happens to stumble upon him without even trying! Elijah then instructs Obadiah to basically go let Ahab know that he’s found Elijah. That’s when we see this second fear of Obadiah. He becomes afraid that if he does that, it will result in his death. Obadiah even goes as far as to mention that this request must be coming because of his own sin. I love the humility of Obadiah to remember the guilt of his own sin. God’s not actually judging Obadiah here for his sin, but I love how this shows the tender heart of one who fears the LORD. Obadiah then explains why he thinks Elijah’s request could result in his death. He thinks that when he goes and tells Ahab that he’s found Elijah, that Elijah will leave and thus won’t be there anymore when he brings back Ahab. He fears that in Ahab’s might take his anger out on Obadiah and kill him. I’m guessing Obadiah knew King Ahab pretty well, so that probably tells us a little more about the kind of person Ahab was if Obadiah feared that. Nonetheless, Elijah assures Obadiah in the name of the LORD that he doesn’t need to worry. Elijah assures Obadiah that he intends to show himself to Ahab that day. And so, Obadiah obeys and goes and brings back Ahab to Elijah.
This brings us then to my third point for today, which actually brings us first back to the start of our passage. You see, Elijah could assure Obadiah like this because God had given him a mission. God had instructed Elijah back in verse 1 that he was to go and show himself to Ahab. Verse 1, God says to Elijah, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” This is significant when you remember that it was God who had ordered Elijah into hiding in the first place, 17:3. God had declared both a drought of rain and a drought of the prophetic Word. Now, God is declaring in this chapter that both would be returning soon to Israel.
So, we see this dramatic reveal of Elijah to Ahab in verse 17. After more than three years of God hiding Elijah from Ahab, God ordains for Ahab to see Elijah. Verse 17 records Ahab’s reaction to the sight of Elijah. Ahab says to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” That’s quite a different reaction than Obadiah who had called Elijah his lord and bowed down before him. Well, Elijah wastes no time and turns the accusation back on Ahab where it truly belonged. Elijah as a covenant lawyer on behalf of God accuses Ahab for abandoning the commands of the LORD especially in regard to his worship of Baal.
Don’t miss an important point and application with Elijah and Ahab exchanging accusations. Ahab falsely accused Elijah, while surely disregarding Elijah’s accusations. Elijah rightly disregarded Ahab’s false accusations and correctly accused Ahab. Two different accusations. One horribly wrong, one sadly right. One from God, one from Satan. Remember, the name Satan literally means accuser and that’s how Scripture describes Satan – as the unjust accuser of the saints, Revelation 12:10. Surely, we’ll face different accusations against us in our lives. We will need God-given humility and discernment to know when an accusation is valid and when it is not. In contrast to the hard-hearted Ahab, we need the tender humility demonstrated by the faithful Obadiah here who was so quick to point out own his sin even when it wasn’t the issue at hand. Likewise, we need the wisdom from God to see through the lies and accusations of the enemy, even as Elijah did here, so we can prophetically confront such lies with the truth.
Bit I digress. Stepping back them to the main consideration here, I want us to wrestle with this question for a moment. Why did God have Elijah reveal himself here and now? In other words, why God have Elijah first hide himself for three years then finally show himself to Ahab? Or let me say it another way. We can understand why God had Elijah go into hiding after declaring the drought. But why would God then have Elijah come here and lift the drought after three some years? It’s obviously not because Ahab or the people of Israel repented. Remember, that’s what King Solomon said needed to happen when God shut off the rain. Go back to the terms of the covenant in Deuteronomy 28 and we can see that they were told this drought would happen if they abandoned the LORD for idols and false gods. So why send Elijah back to show himself now? Why send Elijah back to end the drought now? When the people hadn’t repented.
Well, as we look at the rest of this chapter next week, we’ll get a better sense of the answer to that question. But let me give the basic answer now. The basic answer must be because of the great, undeserved grace and mercy of God. In no way, do we see it warranted for God to lift the drought. I could imagine how fake news might have reported this as “God blinked” and agreed to turn the water back on after a three-and-a-half-year standoff between himself and the Ahab administration. But whereas Ahab had pity on his animals, God surely had pity on his thirsty, starving people. And while they were responsible for their sin, God graciously was going to turn the water back on for them to see that God is in control.
And more than that, he would simultaneously do that in a way that discredited the people’s false hope in Baal. We read today of Elijah’s open challenge to the prophets of Baal and Asherah. In verse 19, he issues a challenge to them all through Ahab. Next week we’ll see Ahab accept the challenge and we’ll see the pagan prophets hugely humiliated and then put to death. More than that, this challenge will be conducted for the people of Israel to see. It would be done to minister to the people’s hearts who had long suffered as sheep with only false shepherds. Recall that we said last week that Baal was supposed to be the Canaanite god of fertility. Baal worshippers thought Baal was the one with the power to send rain. Maybe many Israelites mistakenly thought it was Baal who was withholding the rain. But the challenge we’ll read about next week between the Baal prophets and Elijah would clear all this up. It would show Baal to be a fraud and powerless to give rain. It would instead show the power of the LORD, immediately followed by him lifting the drought and sending rain.
And so, for Elijah to come out of hiding and show himself to the people was ultimately God coming out of hiding and showing himself to the people. The LORD would show himself to be God and that there is no other. The result would work in the people’s hearts to turn them back to the LORD – at least in part. So, let’s appreciate the great, undeserving grace and mercy of God here. No, the people had not yet repented of their idolatry and their worship of Baal. They didn’t deserve the drought to be lifted. Nonetheless, God had pity on them. God had compassion on them. God took the initiative to come back to them even when they hadn’t come back to him. While they were still sinners, God sent Elijah to save them. God sent Elijah to show himself to them so he could reveal the one true God to them.
And that is the sort of initiative we find all the more by God when we get to the New Testament. Rom. 5:8, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God’s kindness toward us in Jesus Christ was to turn our hearts to him. It was meant to make us humbly recognize our sin and repent and come to him. Let us each then be renewed again today in the new covenant which was inaugurated by the blood of Christ. Remember again your sin. Remember again how God has put away your sin by Christ’s blood. Remember again today the way of the LORD as the one and only true God. Be renewed today in striving to walk in his ways and live your life in obedience to God.
In closing, I remind us that we live in our own troubling times. Jesus warned us that we would have trouble and tribulation, John 16:33. How we live in this day amidst such trouble will need discernment and prudence. I can think of the theme today of someone hiding versus someone showing himself. There was a time for Elijah to hide and time to reveal himself. Likewise, Obadiah and these hundred other faithful prophets had some hard decisions on how to live for God in such troubling times. I think especially of Jesus’ ministry in this regard. In a very similar way, Jesus’ earthly ministry included both a secretive component and a revealing component. Early on in his ministry he told many people to keep quiet about the miracles he did for them, and even rebuked the demons for revealing his true identity. He was careful to reveal himself in his own time and in his own way, and not to entrust himself to man or man’s agenda for him (John 2:24). At times, Jesus’ timing and plans meant he hid away from the religious leaders in Judea who sought to kill him. This is illustrated well in John 7 when Jesus’ own earthly brothers were trying to goad him to go to Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. They told him he needed to do his works publicly not in secret. But Jesus replied that he would reveal himself according to his own time. And while he did end up eventually arriving late at that feast, it wasn’t until later he would really show himself at that Feast of Passover when he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and ultimately allowed himself to be found and put to death on the cross. Jesus’ own ministry said there was a time for hiding and a time for showing himself. And in his case, his showing of himself meant going to the cross to die in our place. And yet he rose from the dead on the third day and showed himself again to many witnesses.
And it’s that testimony of the risen Lord Jesus that he has entrusted to us his disciples. And so, here’s my application. Yes, there is a time to hide and a time to reveal yourself. Ecclesiastes says something similar in 3:7 when it says that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak”. Wisdom and prudence may in fact dictate times for us each to operate with more shrewdness and more covertly. There may be times where discretion of sorts is the better part of valor. But there are also times to show ourselves and to confront evil and to speak forth God’s truth and to witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel. Elijah knew when to hid and when to show himself because the Word of God came to him to direct him. And though we should not expect such personal guidance in our own life, surely the Word still offers us guidance.
Surely on the whole, the New Testament instructions for us fall more on the call to show ourselves than to hide. Again, I’m not saying there aren’t times and places to yet hide or work discreetly or even covertly. But we have so much that ordinarily calls us to show ourselves to the world as Christians. We have the words of Jesus that call us to be the light of the world and a city set on a hill, not to be hidden. Jesus gave us the instructions to go to the ends of the earth making converts to himself. The New Testament records the example of the early church as martyrs who willingly suffered for Christ’s sake to keep his commission. We are told to not be ashamed of the testimony of Jesus to the world.
Today we have so many reasons to want to hide our faith. Increasingly the world is hostile to people who actually show their Christianity. Let us today pray for the fear of God over man, and for strength to show forth Christ to the world. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.