DOUBTLESS ELIJAH EXPECTED THAT, after the triumphant confrontation on Mount Carmel, Israel would turn back to the living God (1 Kings 19). As he had executed the false prophets, so Queen Jezebel herself would be eliminated—by the popular demand of an outraged populace determined to be faithful and loyal to the covenant. Perhaps even King Ahab would repent and come on board.
It doesn’t work out that way. King Ahab reports everything that has happened to Jezebel, and Jezebel lets Elijah know that he is as good as dead (1 Kings 19:2). The people are nowhere to be seen. “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life” (1 Kings 19:3), we are told. In fact, a textual variant (which may be original) reads “Elijah saw, and ran for his life”—i.e., he now saw the dimensions of the whole problem, and ran. He heads south to Beersheba on the southern edge of the kingdom of Judah, drops off his servant, and keeps on going. Eventually he arrives at Mount Horeb, the site of the giving of the Law. He is so deeply depressed he wants to die (1 Kings 19:4). Worse, he succumbs to not a little self-pity: everybody else has rejected God, all the Israelites have broken the covenant, all the prophets except Elijah have been put to death—“I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10).
One can sympathize with Elijah’s despair. In part, it is grounded in unfulfilled expectations. He thought that all that had taken place would trigger massive renewal. Now he feels not only isolated, but betrayed. And yet:
(1) He has his facts wrong. He knows that at least a hundred of the Lord’s prophets are still alive, even if they are in hiding (1 Kings 18:13).
(2) He is not in a fit state to judge the hearts of all the Israelites. Some may be loyal to Yahweh, but terrified of Jezebel, and therefore keeping their heads down. After all, isn’t that what he himself is doing?
(3) God himself assures Elijah that he has “reserved” for himself seven thousand people who have never bowed to Baal and never kissed him (1 Kings 19:18). Here is the beginning of a major biblical theme—the doctrine of the remnant. The covenant community as a whole may become apostate, but God Almighty still “reserves” for himself a faithful remnant—which in the fullness of time will become the nucleus of the fledgling New Testament church.
(4) God sometimes works and speaks in quiet ways, not in massive confrontation (1 Kings 19:11–13).
(5) Sooner or later even the strongest leaders, especially the strongest leaders, need a younger apprentice and helper to come alongside, shoulder part of the burden, and finally take over the work (1 Kings 19:19–21).