Shaped in Isolation
1 KINGS 17 by Stephen McIlory
Join with Stephen as he reflects on the experiences of the Prophet Elijah, under the reign of Ahab, King of Israel. Within this brief study of the book of 1 Kings, you will glimpse the difficulty which the prophet faced under an oppressive leadership. This in turn leads him on a journey into isolation. Finally, we can see the shaping of his character being made ready to serve his God further. Paradoxically, what man meant for evil, God meant for good.
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In order to contextualise 1 Kings 17, we need to glance at 1 Kings 16: 30. Here, we are told that King “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of YHWH, more than all who were before him.” This was the spiritual and moral climate of Israel when the Prophet Elijah entered onto the scene.
Never before had the condition of God’s people sunk to depths of such degradation, as under his leadership! It appears that King Ahab provoked YHWH’s anger more than any other king before him, and there were seven of them. No doubt many of God’s people wondered if YHWH would ever recapture His lost prestige and power. After all, it had only been a short period of time since the reign of the great King David and his son King Solomon (58 years in fact). After this you will recall, the land split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom called Israel (made up of ten tribes); the southern kingdom called Judah (two tribes). King Ahab reigned in the northern kingdom, Israel. His wickedness had been compounded by the political marriage between Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel was a gentile, not a Hebrew, from the nation of Sidon (modern-day Lebanon), just north of the promised land. She was the daughter of the king of Sidon and had brought with her the pagan gods of that country. In particular, she imported the demonic deities known as Ba’al and Ashtoreth (who was also known as Astarte and Asherah). Now, there were numerous temples to these deities all over Israel and the pagan prophets of these temples even sat at the king’s table. In turn, the true prophets of YHWH had been forced to flee into isolation. Many now called caves their homes, as they continued to anxiously survive in solitude.
And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As YHWH God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”
Then the word of YHWH came to him, saying “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
So, he went and did according to the word of YHWH, for he went and stayed by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook. And it happened after a while that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land.
Then the word of YHWH came to him, saying, “arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there.
Elijah suddenly appears ‘on stage’, a little like the mysterious appearance from nowhere of the royal priest Melchizedek in the book of Genesis. We know that Elijah came from Gilead which was on the other side of the Jordan river, in the modern-day country of Jordan. Gilead was in the land originally allotted to the tribe of Gad during the conquest of the promised land, and the prince of the prophets leaves that land to meet with King Ahab. The message he brought from YHWH was that “as YHWH God of Israel lives, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising declaration and perhaps even a little arrogant. This was the king of Israel, after all. Let’s put some context on it. You see, Elijah was bringing a word from his God originally declared by YHWH to His people and recorded for us in Deuteronomy 11. Here he warns the Hebrew people, by saying “take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, lest YHWH’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce…” Wow! This truth, recorded around 700 years previously, is now being manifested through Elijah, and Ahab needed to hear it. He and Jezebel had put all their faith and trust into Ba’al and Ashtoreth, with Ba’al being trusted for the fertility of the land. Here now, we find YHWH God demonstrating the futility of such trust. In a way, He was declaring through Elijah that there was and is no god like the God of Israel. He alone provides the fertility of the land, giving rain for the crops and there would be no more rain until He says so, and therefore no food or water!
As quickly as the prophet arrives on the scene, he disappears from the scene. YHWH God requests him to flee the land and He directs Elijah to escape out of Israel, back over the river Jordan once again, to solitude by the bank of a brook called Cherith. Elijah does as his God asks and finds himself isolated from society, in the middle of nowhere, alone with no one to talk to except the birds (and I don’t think they were very good conversationalists!)
In quickly reading this narrative, we often miss seeing the genuine faith that Elijah possessed in YHWH! Remember, he had been asked to approach the most powerful man in the land with a pronouncement of warning and a call to repentance. Not the easiest of messages to deliver. Yet Elijah obeyed! Then he was told to run and hide in another land, many miles away, many days walk (or run) from where he was! Yet Elijah obeyed! Wow! What faith! What trust! What obedience! We have so much to learn from these pages in 1 Kings. Don’t overlook that Elijah was still as human as the rest of us and in his isolated home, beside the brook, he must have been lonely, anxious, feeling weak and afraid.
Mysteriously, this is where YHWH wanted him to be. He wanted to teach him further, develop his character more and slowly unveil His perfect plan to the prophet. One step at a time, it appears, learning to trust his God more and more. Many men and women of God throughout history will echo this scenario, admitting that the place of isolation and loneliness was often the setting where God taught them things He couldn’t teach them in the public arena. The Bible commentator, H. Smith, states that “in order to be preserved from making something of himself before men, he must learn his own nothingness before God.” In this seclusion, YHWH God provided for and protected His servant. He does this miraculously using created birds to bring him food and a natural water source for his drink. Ba’al didn’t provide this. Elijah’s personal wealth did not provide this. Elijah’s family or friends did not provide this. It was the Creator of the universe who did this, proving once again His power and the nothingness of anything, or anyone, mankind might put his or her trust in. There is a beautiful old Jewish tradition that says that the bread and meat, brought to the prophet in his isolation, came directly from King Ahab’s table! Think about that. Who would have had the best food in the land? (which by this point was now in a famine!) Answer – the king. YHWH God commanded the ravens to take the best food in the land, from the royal dining table and supply His servant with the best of the best food in the whole region. This is not inspired Scripture, and I don’t know if it is true, but what a thought! God supplying the best of the best for His child.
And so, Elijah suffered in isolation, patiently learning all the time and waiting on YHWH’s next move.
Many of God’s people today suffer from imprisonment, solitude and isolation. Take for example, Malaysia’s ‘Faith Purification Centres’. Some new followers of Jesus are arrested and sent to one of the three detention camps to isolate and ‘purify’ the detainees.
One former detainee, let’s call her Jane, has described how she was taken from her workplace, interrogated, and then placed in one of the religious rehabilitation centres – all on the same day. She was given no opportunity for legal representation or court proceedings. The young woman reported that when she asked for a lawyer, authorities simply told her she didn’t need one.
Supposedly there to be ‘re-educated,’ she was surprised to find nothing was actually taught. Ironically, during her forced isolation, the warden and staff quickly discovered that she knew more about Islam than they did, and instead of teaching anything, they tried to entice her back to Islam with the ‘charm approach,’ a folk version of Islam involving black magic.
Though the centre was filled with male drug addicts, she was an obedient and respectful prisoner. After many months, the warden told her to write a description of her conversion to Christianity, instructing her to blame Christians for fraudulently or forcibly converting her. Instead, she wrote the truth of genuinely placing her faith in Jesus. The warden tore it up three times and then caned her, which she endured quietly. Several weeks later, she miraculously escaped during a rainstorm that knocked out the electrical power, and now resides in another part of Asia.
These centres deliver daily programmes, known also as ‘Islamic Rehabilitation’. The number of these detainees is kept secret, and the Sharia Court system has the power to isolate people for between 100 days and three years.
Similarly, as we all face an unknown period of lockdown here in the UK, please allow us at Release to encourage you to pray for believers in Jesus, many of whom are not in self-isolation but forced- isolation.
In the response section of our Lockdown Church website, you will find several ways to enable you to “remember” our brothers and sisters who suffer, many in isolation. This webpage will allow you to:
1. Pray: leave your details to receive our regular prayer emails and/or our free quarterly magazine (which includes our Prayer Shield prayer diary with a short prayer point for each day of the month).
2. Give: to one of our projects working directly with Christian prisoners and their families and many who are forced to live in isolation.
3. Share: these Lockdown Church resources with your Christian friends and get them praying too. You can help to support our brothers and sisters in so many ways.