1 Kings 17-19
Purpose: To encourage class members to put God first in their lives and to find guidance and comfort in the words of the living prophet and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.
We talked last week about the division of the Israelite people into two separate, weaker kingdoms: Ten of the tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel in the north, with Rehoboam as their king; two of the tribes united under Jeroboam as the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Today we’re going to follow ahead with events that happened in the northern Kingdom of Israel. [As you’re talking, draw a simple sketch on the board: a long line representing united Israel, forking into two paths, the upper one labeled “Israel (10)” and the lower labeled “Judah (2)”.]
The book of I Kings names many of the kings of Israel, and their queens, and the length of their reigns, and their wars. Israel was proud of its kings, enough to keep these careful records, but the kingdom was hardly a successful one: In a period of about 200 years, Israel ran through 19 kings – averaging only 10 years per reign. Many of these kings were assassinated by their successors, and these 200 years were spent chiefly in fighting one enemy or another.
About 50 years after Solomon’s death and the division of Israel into two kingdoms, a king named Omri came to the throne of the northern kingdom. Omri did much to stabilize Israel, and established peace with nearby nations through his political and diplomatic skill. One of the actions he took to cement the peace between Israel and its nearest neighbor to the north, Phoenicia (today’s Lebanon) was to marry his son and heir Ahab to a daughter of a Phoencian king – the woman Jezebel. This seemingly smart move on Omri’s part proved to be disastrous for the spiritual welfare of Israel.
What do you think of when you hear the name Jezebel, or when someone refers to a woman as “a Jezebel”? [The n.ame usually carries a sexual connotation, but it’s important to understand that in the Old Testament narrative Jezebel’s sins were not sexual. This woman had power and an appetite for evil far beyond that. It is through her influence that worship of the true God virtually ceased in Israel.]
Jezebel brought with her to Israel the worship of the pagan god Baal. Only two generations after Solomon had built the great temple to Jehovah, Jezebel, with the aid and knowledge of Omri and Ahab, set up a grand temple in Samaria, within the northern kingdom, to the worship of Baal. One Biblical writer noted this:
1 Kings 21:25
No one gave himself up to doing evil in the eyes of the Lord as did Ahab, urged on by Jezebel his wife.
In furthering this pagan worship, Jezebel’s people hunted down the prophets and priests of Jehovah and had them killed whenever she could find them. She won supporters for Baal by housing and feeding hundreds of men as the priests of Baal. She hunted especially for the prophet Elijah, one of the few survivors who preached unceasingly for a return to the worship of Jehovah.
Elijah is called in the scripture “the Tishbite,” suggesting that he is from a town named Tishbe. We do not know where this place was, other than that it was probably in Gilead, on the far side of the River Jordan, because we first hear of Elijah about the people of Gilead. Nor do we know anything about Elijah’s early life or his calling as a prophet. He first appears on the record in I Kings 17:1 when he stands before King Ahab and prophesies:
And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.
From that moment, Elijah fled and hid in a cave to escape the sentence of death that was upon him as a prophet of Jehovah.
The stories connected with Elijah’s life at this point are familiar ones. Rather than retelling them all, let’s just remind ourselves what they are:
1. Elijah seals up the heavens, is miraculously sustained, and raises a widow’s son from the dead.
While Elijah is hiding in the cave, what does he eat? what does he drink? What happens to the brook that runs before his cave? Why? What does he do at that point? [He drinks from the brook Cherith and is fed by ravens; the brook dries up because Elijah’s declaration that there shall be no rain comes to pass; he goes to the town of Zarephath to seek food and water.]
At the gates of the city of Zarephath, whmo does he meet, and what follows?
I Kings 17:10-12:
10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.
11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.
12 And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
Is it likely that Ahab and Jezebel were suffering as this widow was? How do you feel about the Lord and Elijah pronouncing the curse of drought upon the land, when it affects innocent people like this widow and her son? What does the Lord ask you to endure, brought on by others?
I Kings 17:13-16:
13 And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.
14 For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.
15 And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.
16 And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.
We do not, all of us, have our suffering and faith rewarded as instantly and miraculously and literally as was the charity of the widow of Zarephath – but can you suggest some ways in which we are rewarded for enduring our trials and serving as the Lord directs?
The scriptures go on to tell us that the widow’s son died, and that Elijah miraculously restored him to life.
2. Elijah challenges the priests of Baal and opens the heavens for rain.
The next great event that we read about in the life of Elijah is his great contest with the prophets of Baal, to demonstrate to the people of Israel who was really God over Israel: Baal or Jehovah. We read about this contest in I Kings 18, where Ahab calls together “all of Israel” and 850 priests of Baal on one side, with Elijah alone on the other.
Yet the contest did not start that day when Elijah faced all those false priests. If we know a little about the pagan god Baal, we can see that Elijah has been challenging the false religion from the very first time he appears on the Biblical scene.
Baal was the god of lightning and storm – how had Elijah already proved that Jehovah was more powerful in this regard?
Baal was the god responsible for the fertility of the land – how had Jehovah already proven himself more powerful there?
The center of Baal worship was in the Phoenician city of Tyre. The town of Zarephath was between the cities of Tyre and Sidon – Jehovah had brought drought and famine to Baal’s home territory, and in Baal’s home territory Jehovah demonstrates that he can still provide for his own people by the miracle of the meal and oil that Elijah performed for the widow there. Finally, pagan fertility gods like Baal were believed to die during the winter months and be restored to life in the spring. But how does Elijah show that it is really Jehovah who has the power over life and death in Israel?
In the interest of time we won’t read the full story of the contest between Elijah and the priests, between Jehovah and Baal, but you’ll remember that Elijah gave every possible advantage to the priests to show that Baal was god, even to the point of soaking his own sacrifice so thoroughly that fire should not have been able to burn it. Let’s just read the concluding verses of that story:
I King 18:36-39:
36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.
3. Elijah is comforted by the Holy Ghost and instructed to continue in God’s work.
The people, though, did not sincerely return to Jehovah and mend their ways, and a discouraged Elijah sought the Lord in the wilderness, on Mount Sinai. These are very familiar verses to us all, but let’s reread I Kings 19:9-12:
9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
10 And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord god of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake 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:
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
Although the important point here is listening for the still small voice, before talking about how to listen for that, I’d like to discuss some of the winds and earthquakes and fires that sometimes drown out the still small voice. These winds and earthquakes are so loud, so dramatic – and so normal to everyday life that I wonder if we’re really aware of the winds that keep us from hearing the still small voice.
Some of the noisy winds I’ve thought about this week are these: [write labels on board as they are discussed]
Spiritual feelings are tender ones, and for many of us, those spiritual feelings manifest themselves in tears – we often see someone like Jeffrey R. Holland get teary-eyed while speaking in conference, and we’ll probably see at least one tear during our testimony meeting this morning – I don’t want to make anyone self-conscious over genuine spiritual feelings resulting in tears. But in some settings – even some settings within the Church, perhaps – there is a tendency to confuse emotion with the spirit, to suggest that if a speaker or writer or movie director can provoke you to tears, he has caused you to feel the spirit.
How many of you have ever received email that has been forwarded to everybody someone knows, and then all those people forward it to everybody they know? You might want to take a close, dry-eyed look at some of those emails the next time you receive them. Do they really teach a valid gospel lesson or bear a legitimate testimony, or are they calculated to manipulate your emotions? When you listen to a popular speaker, especially those who work with youth, is he bearing a sincere testimony, or is he stirring up tears or great fervor solely to get the audience to feel emotion, with the result that they confuse emotion with the spirit?
If you understand the kind of sentimentalism I am trying to describe, how does the confusion between emotion and spirit act like a wind or an earthquake, rather than the still small voice?
Most of us are too sophisticated, we think, to fall into the trap of superstition – we don’t believe that black cats are bad luck and horseshoes are good luck or that we ought to throw spilled salt over our right shoulder. If we do those things, it’s all in good fun, pretending to believe.
But I’ve noticed a tendency among many of my good Latter-day Saint acquaintances to fall for other types of beliefs that I think we can lump under the heading “superstition.” I came across a question sent into the Church News a while ago, for example:
Does the church believe in the legend of Atlantis, the island that Plato says existed in the Atlantic Ocean? if so, when do you suppose it was sunk?
The answer given was:
The Church has nothing to say about this legend or any other legend. It deals with established truth and not with speculation.
For most of us, it may seem obvious that the legend of Atlantis is not something that the Church would have any comment about, and that whether there is any grain of truth behind it, the legend should not be used in a gospel setting to speculate on the history of mankind.
There are other fields of study that may affect more of us than old legends. I’m thinking about the periodic excitements that arise when archaeologists find some “new” inscription on an ancient stone, or some “new” writing of an ancient people. I’m reminded of what a scholar and gospel teacher said about some of these ancient writings:
But just as a geiger counter can still detect traces of radiation in an empty container that once held radioactive elements, so Latter-day-Saint readers can detect traces of departed truth in the empty writings of the Gnostics. [Stephen E. Robinson, “Background for the Testaments”, Ensign, December 1982]
I am not suggesting by any means that these matters should not be given scholarly attention, or that we should not be interested in them as relics of the human past. But when it comes to discerning the direction of the spirit, how might they act as winds and earthquakes obscuring the still small voice?
Another matter I would like to suggest as being – under some circumstances – a wind or an earthquake between us and the still small voice are key social issues. Now please cooperate with me on this: we are not going to debate the merits of the issues, and if you comment your remarks should be general enough that you aren’t taking a stand one way or another. Please cooperate with this request! But regardless of what position you take, why do issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, and whether a particular law or policy is calculated to support or destroy the Constitution have the overwhelming power of whirlwinds or earthquakes or fires in our lives?
This may be the most important question of the whole lesson, and we ought to have an entire class period devoted to answering it: Once we recognize the winds and earthquakes that are distracting us from the still small voice, how can we set them aside and learn to focus on that still small voice?
The events of Elijah’s life occurred nearly 3,000 years ago. The name of Baal, and his worship – at least under that name – are relics of a vanished world. Yet we are still faced with the decision: to serve God, or to follow a counterfeit. The winds and earthquakes and fires of our generation are as powerful as the storms of Elijah’s day. [Bear testimony about the power of the still small voice]