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1 Kings 19:9-18

Leaders can’t avoid being compared to those who have gone before them; nor can they escape comparison with the ones who will follow. In the cave, Elijah is troubled by the prophets of past and future: Moses, giver of the law and Elisha, the one with the mantle of double portion. But in this dark and lonely place, with nothing but these ghosts to haunt him, Elijah encounters the tenacious calling of the Lord Most High.

To preach this passage one must not miss the many layers of narrative and rhetoric. There is a thickness in this small story that acts like a sponge, soaking up the rich history of God’s salvific activity.[1]

Mount Carmel marks the pinnacle of Elijah’s leadership as prophet in Israel. In the 18th chapter, Elijah single-handedly defeats the prophets of Ba’al while the other prophets of the Lord hide in a cave. While the prophets hidden in the caves survive, Elijah declares that he stands alone as the only prophet of Lord. And alone he is. Just after this great victory up on Mt Carmel, Elijah makes his way to another mountain that has a history of divine activity: Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai.

Upon Mount Horeb, in the great shadow of Moses, lonely Elijah flees for his life. Up on the very mount where God met with Moses, Elijah prepares to take his place with his ancestors and begs God to take the very life he seems so anxious to preserve from the hands of an angry Jezebel. (19:4).

Twice the Lord asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Again we find many layers to this question. Why is Elijah hiding when the Lord has been proven faithful yet again on the water-logged alters of Carmel? What is he doing in a cave when his task is down in the valley? But for my own purposes I would like to place emphasis on the word “here.” What is Elijah doing here, on Horeb? Surely there is more significance to this mountain than a convenient hiding place. Everything that unfolds in this encounter with the awesome presence of God is dripping with memories of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness.

Consider some of the similarities between 1 Kings 19 and Exodus 33. Both Moses and Elijah find themselves serving an idolatrous people. Whether Baal, a golden calf or any other symbol of national, social, or economic power that promises to give God’s people more than the Creator of heaven and earth, the jealousy of God burns. Both prophets depart from the wicked people of Israel and go up the mountain to meet with the Lord. In both encounters there are great forces of nature displaying God’s presence. Both prophets plead with the Lord. But this is where the similarities come to end an end.

While Elijah begs God to take his life because he is so discouraged by the faithlessness of Israel, Moses goes up the mountain hoping to atone for the sins of the people – and atonement, as Moses knows full well, requires a sacrifice. Moses was prepared to lay down his life for the ungrateful people he led out of Egypt. Elijah was so fed up these comfortable quasi-pagans squandering the promised land, he would rather die than put up with them one more day. Moses makes his petition on behalf of the people and appeals to the presence and power of God. Elijah makes his petition for himself and appeals to his own righteous zeal.

Even though Elijah’s actions and response pale in comparison with the prophet Moses, God continues calling. The Lord offers to let Elijah see the divine presence pass by. Much like the natural wonders of Moses’ day when God led the people by smoke and fire, Elijah bears witness to three extreme forces of nature. But of all these are merely the overture before the curtain lifts and the show begins.

The presence of God passes by in a paradox. Some call it a “still small voice” others a “gentle whisper” others still, “a sound of sheer silence.” These translations are struggling to hold together the two opposing ideas presented in the Hebrew text (Fretheim, 1999). The text says there was silence, and yet Elijah heard it and went to the mouth of cave. How does one hear an absence of sound? And yet this moment of silence after the rush of the wind and the rattle of the earthquake and the roar of the fire was deafening. God speaks in the pregnant pause, the liminal space in the midst of the ruckus of a chaotic world.

After this moment of silent communication, God asks again, “What are you doing here, Eiljah?” What indeed. Perhaps Elijah knows that he cannot hold a candle to the faithfulness of Moses. Perhaps Elijah knows that just down the mountain plowing a field is a young man who will take his mantle and wear it so well the people of Israel will hardly know Elijah has gone. Perhaps if he had the wisdom of Moses the people of Israel wouldn’t be whoring themselves to Ba’al. Perhaps if he had the strength of Elisha he wouldn’t be hiding from that demon Jezebel. Elijah is alone with his ghosts and consumed with himself. And yet, the call of God persists.

The call of God persists beyond our deficiencies and inability. Truly, Elijah is laid bare on Mount Horeb, exposed for his many flaws and inadequacies. But it wasn’t Elijah’s righteous zeal that set the soaked alter ablaze. It was the presence of God. It wasn’t Moses’s wit that spared the people of Israel from wrath. It was God’s own covenant faithfulness. It wasn’t Elisha’s strength that raised a dead boy back to life (2 Kings 4). It was the enduring love of the Creator. This is the God who is being revealed in the pregnant pause when all of the voices who would clamor for attention are stilled.

We cannot underestimate how badly Christians are in need of practices of silence, clearing space to hear the still small voice in the absence of sound. Martin Laird describes silence as the gloved hand that clasps the wild hawk of the mind (Laird, 2006). Our world is filled with such stimulation our minds are truly wild and unruly, desperate to find their rest in the presence of God. But ultimately this silence is not merely for self-contemplation or inner reflection. Hearing the voice of God always redirects our focus away from navel gazing and back to the work of salvation God is enacting in the world.

When the church turns her gaze inward, stewing over issues of self-interest and personal preference, may she have the ears to hear the voice of God calling, “What are you doing here?” And for those servants of the church who have preached this message week after week only to watch the people of God roam from idol to idol until you are left haunted by the ghosts of all you are not, may you have ears to hear the voice of God calling, “What are you doing here?” Their faithfulness was never dependent on your skillfulness. Even still, the call of God persists, inviting you to lay down your life for the people God loves.

Elijah leaves the mountain and finds Elisha, throws his mantle over this young farmer and walks on. This mantle covered Eiljah’s face in those intense moments in the silent passing of the Lord. I do not know if he is still sulking or if the presence of God has pulled him from this own self-interest. But the image of that mantle resting on the back of Elisha reminds us of the tenacious call of God, echoing in the darkest cave, quieting the ghosts of our doubt, speaking without the need for sound.

[1] When preaching from Kings, being a historical narrative, I found commentaries that focused more on the narrative flow and rhetorical arguments were more helpful hermeneutically than commentaries concerned with Biblical critical technique. I most enjoyed Jerome Walsh’s work in Brit Olam, Studies in Hebrew Narrative Poetry.