Learning to whistle! - Sketches on the life and times of Elijah the Prophet by Beresford Job
Chapter 1 | Setting the scene
People who proclaim the undiluted and uncensored content and teaching of the Bible traditionally end up being considered arrogant troublemakers whilst alive, and then prophets of God when dead. Jesus hit up against this Himself with the Pharisees, and had to remind them that most of the prophets God had raised up in Israel had been treated like pure dirt when they were alive, and then proudly heralded as spiritual giants once they were safely dead and buried.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'" (Matthew 23v29-30)
"We would never persecute a prophet like our forefathers did!" they claim, and all the time whilst actually trying for all they were worth to get rid of Jesus, the very Son of God. It's really not very different today. You can be parcelled up and disposed of by Christians as a demonic and divisive troublemaker simply for raising questions no one wishes to have answered, or by merely seeking to actually apply certain bits of scripture most believers seem to dearly wish just weren't there. It will all be done, however, under the pretext of unity and love and the greater good; and those who shaft you will, more often than not, do so with a gracious and public smile designed to show forth the fruit of the Spirit Who is, naturally, leading them to get rid of you. They will be among the first to honour believers of the past who were considered divisive and demonic for their stand on God's Word at various points then neglected, yet will often be the very last to put up with someone proclaiming a part of God's Word they don't personally care much for.
It is, however, getting to be all the rage nowadays to be controversial in the Christian faith, but only in certain ways. You must pick your controversy carefully of course, and with one eye very much on whether or not you might go too far and end up persona non-gratis with too many of the wrong people. As long as you choose a nice safe and acceptable controversy though, then the chances are that not only will you be relatively all right, you might even become a bit of a hero too.
After all, a certain amount of controversy can actually be quite fun. It stimulates the spiritual grey matter and makes for some good reading and pleasant hours spent in fervent debate. Usually the more charismatic the particular controversy is the better, and should it revolve around such things as signs and wonders, the casting out of evil spirits, Spirit-led psychological counselling techniques or modern day prophetic utterances by modern day prophets, then that is just perfect and you could end up positively made for life. Special conferences abound and in depth articles fly endlessly around in the Christian press; and by and large, everyone is happy and greatly content and excited to be on the so-called cutting edge of the Christian faith.
Indeed, if created and used carefully, then controversy can be an extremely effective tool for furthering the personal ends of those who are causing it. Many a Christian leader has ended up becoming well known and influential, and often quite rich as well, in precisely this way. Yet the sad result is all too often that believers, convinced that they are indeed living on some perceived and aforementioned cutting edge of discipleship, are actually doing no more than running round in circles going nowhere and merely facilitating the ongoing ministry of whichever leader it is to whom they feel some kind of misguided allegiance. The spiritual battle cries in all this are suitably noisy and the overall presentation is usually pretty good too; and all the time enough controversy is mixed in to give everything just the right cutting edge type flavour.
You can't, however, be like the real prophets Jesus was referring to and still have what I've just described; and for the simple reason that controversy is not what they were about. They had not the slightest interest in controversy either one way or the other, and gave little thought to whether they caused it or not. They set out to neither create nor avoid it. Indeed, it wasn't actually part of their thinking one way or the other. They were rather interested in something else, and that was to speak God's Word to His people; and in particular, they were interested in speaking whatever part of His Word was currently being ignored or gone against by His people.
Two things exemplified these men's lives, and as you turn to their stories in the Bible you see that they go together like both love and marriage and the proverbial horse and carriage. They firstly spoke out what God was saying without either compromise or embellishment, and secondly, they were unpopular and considered to be troublemakers and bad people. Proclamation of the whole counsel of God and popularity, and especially if you have some kind of public teaching role, never have, and never will, go together. There seem to always be, at any point in Church history, certain things that the Bible teaches which are considered to be very much off limits, and those who touched on such things found that fame and fortune most certainly passed them by you by. It is again, no different today. There are still things in the Bible that are considered by many to be off limits, and which will be the end of you, at least as far as fame and fortune and everyone saying what a lovely person you are is concerned, if you teach and practice them. Be controversial! Yes, by all means! Radical, even: but only concerning certain things, only concerning the safe things.
I put it to you that much controversy on the Christian scene today is actually a mere distraction from the really important issues. Much truly radical stuff, it seems to me, is actually still to be addressed, and by radical I mean really getting to the root of things. I mean, using the Lord's own analogy, getting the doctrinal axe out and chopping away at everything that isn't based in the Word of God and discarding it, and finding what is actually in the Word of God and replacing what we have jettisoned with it. I mean getting stuck into what the Bible really says about certain things, and in particular the things that the Christian status quo considers, by and large, to be off limits. Let's be clear as well, and this is one of the main reasons why what I'm calling the truly radical stuff hasn't happened yet, that this isn't going to bring anyone other than the Lord any glory or popularity in it's proclamation at all. In its wake will come not the controversy that leads to spiritual celebrity status and perceived ministerial success, but rather the sort of division and rancour and fireworks that followed the Lord Himself around, and which led to rejection and downright infamy.
A key word a this juncture then is honesty. This book is going to be extremely honest, and about quite a lot of things too! My brief is simple: not merely am I going to try to bring out the truth about certain things, but I am going to try to bring out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about certain things - and that is slightly different! It has to be like that though, and for the simple reason that we are going to be looking at the story of one of Jesus' true prophets in the Old Testament who sought to bring God's people back into line when they went against His revealed Word. Then, and this is where it might get a bit sticky and uncomfortable, we are going to apply what we learn and discover from that story to both ourselves personally and to the wider Christian scene today. We will discover where we too are out of line with the Lord in various ways, and that even the wider Christian scene is actually in the dock here and there, and has to be found wanting. Or perhaps we could put it like this: in the same way that Elijah brought God's people to repentance from their departure from his revealed Word, then, by looking at his story, we may well find that we, and indeed the Christian Church at large, has some repenting, and some returning to God's Word to do as well. We can now set the scene and turn to the situation amongst God's people into which Elijah found himself so dramatically propelled.
Having been delivered out of Egypt by Moses and then taken into the Promised Land of Canaan by Joshua, the Jewish nation eventually embarked upon the Golden Age of the rule of King David. All was by no means perfect, but the Lord God was with them, and the surrounding Gentile nations knew it. God's people Israel were a power to be reckoned with, and the Lord did marvellous things both for them and through them; but soon they stopped being faithful to the One who had delivered them from out of Egypt, and the rot started to set in. They rebelled and rebelled and were eventually divided into two Kingdoms, almost completely losing the Lord's blessing upon them and fast becoming little different from the nations around them. They were still God's people, to be sure; it just didn't show much. The power of the Lord departed from them and the most horrible mess ensued.
Elijah's involvement was with the Northern Kingdom, and in the first Book of Kings we have all the background information we need. The king was a guy called Ahab, and concerning him we read, "And Ahab, son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more evil than all those who were before him…Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the Kings of Israel who went before him." (1 Kings 16v30, 33)
As with most men like Ahab his choice of a wife was not good either, and he married a real vixen called Jezebel. She was not actually Jewish at all, but was rather a Gentile from the kingdom of Sidon where and her father just happened to be king. As such he led the national Sidonian religion of Baal-worship, and Baal was the main idol that Satan used in those days to front his opposition to the Lord, and Jezebel, as the kings daughter, was the cult's high priestess. So Israel has become polluted with forbidden idolatry and false worship, yet whilst, as we will see, keeping up an outward show of allegiance to the Lord as well. They further have the worst and most evil king they had ever known. This is God's people in a mess, this is the scene into which Elijah was led as a prophet; and just to top it off, and in order to help give us the whole picture, they went and rebuilt Jericho.
This was where the Jews had their first skirmish with the occupying Canaanites when they commenced their campaign to take the Promised Land, and after the Lord had given them victory in that battle He made this solemn proclamation through Joshua, "Cursed before the Lord be the man that rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho." (Joshua 6v26) Here is a clear command from the Lord forbidding that Jericho should ever again exist, and the Israelites were perfectly aware of that command too. So what did they go and do? "In his (Ahab) days Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho..." (I Kings 16v34)
We have here the tragic picture of the people of God in significant disobedience and unfaithfulness. They are, to say the very least, seriously out of fellowship with God. Through compromise of their submission to the Lord they have ruined themselves and turned their backs on His commandments. They have His Word and they have His Law, yet go against both at almost every turn. Through the deceptive agency of the idol Baal Satan has robbed them of the blessings which should have been theirs, and which could have been spilling out through them to the world in which they lived. Bleak indeed is their plight and condition. Yet they are not completely without hope, for the Lord is about to combat this unfortunate state of affairs - and most effectively too!
Before we move on, however, we must pause and return to the matter of the parallel this affords us of our own situation as God's people today. If Elijah's life is relevant to us at the beginning of this new millennium, and I maintain that it very much is, then it can only be because similarities exist between his situation then and ours now, and exist they most certainly do. We must ensure that we don't refuse needed medication through turning a blind eye to the symptoms that indicate the presence of disease. When Jeremiah was commissioned by the Lord to be a prophet he was told this, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over Kingdoms, to pluck up, and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1v9-10) In the Kingdom of God today it remains the case that death precedes life, that the negative precedes the positive and that destruction precedes the rebuilding. Hence my emphasis concerning our need to be honest - even when it hurts!
There is indeed a big problem in the Kingdom of God today. There is much to be encouraged about too, and there are some very exciting vibrations floating around on the celestial ether, but the unfettered truth is that all is not well by any means. The number of fellowships and Christians really breaking through into a thoroughly biblically based life and experience are still vastly out-numbered by those who do not. We are not yet, by any stretch of the imagination, as the Bible teaches we ought to be, and neither are we the kind of people that we ought to be. It is sad that things like dishonesty, bitterness, injustice, slander, unforgiveness and the like, are common amongst Christians. Materialism, pride, greed and such go unchallenged amongst us, and so many churches remain comfortable little religious coteries more to do with respectability and having a social life than with work of mutually enabling one another to grow in holiness and the Lord.
There is a question we can ask ourselves which puts this into the correct perspective, and it is this: Are those with whom we mix being influenced and affected by the power of Jesus within us? Are they being challenged and convicted of sin, and their need of the Lord's forgiveness, by the integrity, honesty and justice of the Lord revealed in and through our lives? Is the way in which we love each other stopping people in their tracks in amazement, or do they see us as just a religious version of just anyone else? If we had been living in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, then the answer to these questions would have been a resounding, "Yes!" The answer today is, I think, a rather disappointing, "Not really!"
But here is the point, and what this book is all about. Jesus can change us! He can turn that, "Not really!" into a glorious, "Yes!" He is the same as He ever was, and there is nothing He cannot do; and if we let Elijah jump out of our Bibles at us, then I think he might just grab our lapels, look us straight in the eye and show us precisely what changes need to be made.