1 Kings 19:11-13. The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountain apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
Exegesis and Application
Earlier in chapter 19 we read that Elijah was frightened by Jezebel, the evil wife of Israel’s king, Ahab, because she threatened him with the sword. Turn about is fair play in this macabre butchery (18:13, 40). “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Not only did Elijah head out of town for personal safety but he left his prophetic ministry by abandoning his servant in Beersheba and by sneaking into the desert. This fleeing is a huge journey for Elijah leaves the nation of Israel and goes south into one of the southern most inhabited cities of the nation of Judah, Beersheba. And then he travels even further into the southern desert. He tells God, “I have had enough.” (vss. 3-4). Elijah’s ministry was over. He was spent and had no stomach to continue his preaching and teaching. His faith was gone. After a plea to die and being fed by an angel under a tree he travels south another 40 days, through the Wilderness of Paran, and arrives at Mt. Horeb at the southern tip of the Sinai desert where he goes into a cave to hide. It doesn’t appear from vss. 9 and 13 (“What are you doing here, Elijah?”) that the long journey to Horeb is at the direction of God. This trip is apparently Elijah’s idea to escape and perhaps find God at the place where God appeared to Moses earlier (Exodus 3). Maybe Horeb was a pilgrimage for the discouraged Elijah.
In any case, Elijah would rather spend his life in useless solitude than risk his life in an attempt to reform those who did not want to be reformed. An utterly defeated Elijah is alone and frightened and whiny. (vs.10). Even after God appears to Elijah in the cave he still complains. This episode seems to end his ministry and prepare him to anoint his replacement, Elisha (vs. 19).
Back to the “passing” of God to Elijah in the cave. We’re not sure what the violent upheavals of nature (wind, earthquake and fire) are meant to signify but they do replicate how God appeared to Moses on Sinai (Exodus 19; cf, Ps. 18). It is too much to say that God was not in the physical manifestations by the cave (“the LORD is about to pass by”). In this particular instance, God chose not to reveal Himself in natural cataclysms as He had in other portions of the Bible (Nah. 1:3-5; Isa. 30:27). Indeed, the cave narrative is unique in that the upheavals seem to be preparatory to the “gentle small voice” which we are led to believe is God’s voice to Elijah (vs. 12). It is worthy of note to see that Elijah does not come out of the cave, disobeying God (“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD”) until all the weather is passed and only a little, thin voice beacons him.
The Hebrew word “kol” is translated primarily as “voice” as produced by the vocal cords. So the sound that God makes to Elijah is a personal sound created for his human ears to call him out of hiding in the cave. Elijah heard the “low murmuring voice” and responded by first covering his face and then exiting the cave to meet the voice.
The narrative does not tell us that Elijah was cowering in the cave as “the mountain was torn apart and the rocks were shattered” (vs. 11) by the physical elements. This might suggest that Elijah was not fundamentally a coward but rather had spent his moral courage in Israel and was simply exhausted from the fight with the opponents of Yahweh.
I don’t get the impression that Elijah was covering his face because he was ashamed of his cowardly retreat from Israel. He is quite proud of his stand: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. . . I am the only one left.” (vs. 14) Which, of course, was not true (vs.18). I think Elijah covered his head out of fear and respect for the LORD and not out of a sense of humility. Did Elijah really want to see God and perhaps run the risk of receiving another commission to go forth?
Elijah’s ministry had run its course and it was time to pass the mantle on to another prophet, which Elijah literally does in vs. 19 (“Elijah threw his cloak around Elisha.”). It is interesting that we are not told if Elijah fulfilled the LORD’s final instructions to anoint Hazael and Jehu (vss. 15-16). One final hurrah was Elijah’s prophetic message to Kings Ahab and Ahaziah and his being taken up to heaven “in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 1 -2).
Christian journalist, this is a very human story about the collapse of the ministry of a hero of our faith. Elijah does not end on a high note but rather a whimper. He is replaced by an enthusiastic Elisha (vs. 20) and thousands of God-fearing Jews who were prepared to stand up for Yahweh (vs. 19). You too are surrounded like Elijah with a skeptical workplace and profession and many will seek to thwart your calling. You will fail at times to respond properly to the hostility. And you may end your journalism ministry in the mainstream media with a whimper and not a shout. But take heart in the example of Elijah who had a rocky ministry among the Canaanites near the end of his life but got a second crack at ministry with King Ahab and Jezebel, and ends up being commended by the Messiah Himself (Matt. 11:14). The Lord is gracious and slow the anger and willing to forgive 7 times 70. Stay the course and do not lose heart for we serve a merciful God who seeks to encourage and empower us in all kinds of ways.