Don't Wait For ElijahBy Nathan Mates
Despite only getting a few chapters in the Bible, Elijah was regarded (in retrospect) as one of Israel's greatest prophets. He modified weather patterns over Israel for years in a row, raised the dead, called down fire from heaven multiple times, and was taken off to heaven in a whirlwind, skipping death. In fact, at Jesus's transfiguration, "there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus." [Mark 9:4]
When God chose to show off Jesus's true nature as the Son of God at the transfiguration, two Old Testament prophets showed up-- Moses, widely regarded as one of the greatest of the Old Testament, and Elijah. In addition, the Jewish passover meal to this day features a place set for Elijah, in hopes of his return. Problem is, waiting for him is pointless-- Elijah returned in bodily form (not just at the transfiguration), and he's not expected back. We await Jesus's return as the messiah at the end of the age, but Elijah's return has come and gone.
Elijah was called in response to a very evil King of Israel: Ahab. According to 1 Kings 16:30-33, "Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him." Baal was considered the god of fertility and rain clouds, things that are important in the primarily agrarian society of the time.
So, in response to this evil, God called Elijah, from Tishbe in Gilead, and in Elijah's first words in the Bible, a demonstration of God's power is called: "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." [1 Kings 17:1b] This was a direct challenge to the replacement god of fertility, the foreign "god" of rains-- to see whether Baal could deliver the goods or God could. Well, God won. No rain for 3 years. [1 Kings 18:1]
During the midst of the drought, Elijah performed some other miracles, though not those that benefitted Israelites. North of Israel, in the region of Sidon, a widow was near death. She acknowledged Elijah's worship of a true and living God, and after listening and obeying to Elijah's words, her jar of flour and jug of oil didn't run out until the end of the drought. [1 Kings 17:7-16] Contrast that to the Israelites-- they refused to acknowledge Elijah (and by extension, not them) was a prophet of God, and refused to follow his words. And so the Israelites were punished, and non-Israelites were blessed. Later, Elijah raised that widow's son to life, a miracle that even Moses hadn't done.
In suffering though the drought, King Ahab wasn't drawn to repentance. On the contrary, he was hunting for Elijah to kill him-- as if the curse of the drought was no stronger than the one who pronounced it, and killing the messenger would also end the message. Elijah showed up, saying to Ahab: "I have not made trouble for Israel, But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals." [1 Kings 18:18] Elijah issued a challenge: him versus 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah.
This wasn't a contest of brains or brawn, but of the strength of their God. Two altars with wood, one for Elijah and one for the false prophets, a sacrificed bull on each, and no fire to cook the offering was the setting. The Baal prophets went first, with shouts to Baal to do something, dancing around the altar, and ritual self-mutilation to attempt to raise Baal's attention to the matter. [1 Kings 18:26-29] Elijah then upped the stakes: he ordered 16 large jar's worth of water poured on the wood on his altar, so much that the water filled a trench around the altar. At this point, things were not even flammable. And Elijah prayed to the true God: "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again." [1 Kings 18:36-37]
Fire from God came down and consumed not only the sacrifice and the wood, but also the stones of the altar and the soil under that. This got the bystander's attention, and they finally acknowledged the truth: "The LORD--he is God! The LORD--he is God!" [1 Kings 18:39] Elijah had them make short work of the false prophets according to God's commands-- a false prophet is to pay with their life. After such a successful incident, most would be fairly confident, but Elijah turned and ran at the threat on his life from Ahab's wife Jezebel. After God restored his confidence in a most dramatic fashion, Elijah annointed a disciple and successor, Elisha.
After King Ahab died and Ahaziah succeeded him, the new King wanted to meet Elijah. Once again, this was not under the best of circumstances, as Ahaziah was sick and wanted to ask Baal as to whether he'd recover, not God. Elijah had this message sent back through Ahaziah's messengers: "And he said to us, 'Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, "This is what the LORD says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!"'" [2 Kings 1:6] And, those messengers descibed him as "He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist." [2 Kings 1:8] -- what would become the traditional dress of Old Testament prophets.
Elijah followed in the footsteps of Enoch [Genesis 5:24] in being one of the few figures of the Old Testament to skip death on the way to heaven-- he was taken up in a whirlwind to heaven. [2 Kings 2:11] Unlike Enoch, though, God promised that Elijah would return before the messiah came: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." [Malachi 4:4-6]
In our Bibles, these verses are the last of the Old Testament, directly before Matthew's Gospel. Malachi, written around 433 BC, was one of the last prophets of the Old Testament-- with no more direct prophesying from God from centuries. The Hebrew ordering, however, had Chronicles as the last book, which lessens the impact of the promise of Elijah's return as the last words of the Old Testament.
In Jesus's time, the Jews were hanging on these words that Elijah would return, setting places for him at their passover meals, and generally awaiting any prophet. Sure enough, one started preaching, whose "clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey." [Matthew 3:4] He also called people to repentance, but the problem was, this prophet was called John the Baptist. Nevertheless, "people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River." [Matthew 3:6] Jesus himself was baptized by John-- not because Jesus was less than John the Baptist, but Jesus acknowledged that it was proper to do so. [Matthew 3:15]
The religious leaders and pharisees of the day, like their forefathers before them, didn't know how to deal with a prophet in their midst. Instead of hearing the truth John spoke, they demanded answers from him. John the Baptist wasn't the Christ, he freely said. They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." [John 1:21]
After baptizing Jesus, and Jesus's ministry started, John managed to annoy the King by telling the truth. King Herod the Great had several sons, Aristobulus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip I. Aristobulus had a daughter named Herodias. Herodias started off poorly-- marrying her uncle, Philip I. To compound that, she later married a different uncle, Herod Antipas. John was not afraid to speak the truth of God's word against such a situation-- family trees were not to have diagonal lines in them, and Leviticus 18:16 where marrying a brother's wife is forbidden.
Like Jezebel centuries earlier, Herodias did not like this man speaking out against her, and wanted to kill him. [Mark 6:19] Herod instead had him thrown into prison where he'd be somewhat more "protected"-- or so he thought. Herodias's daughter, Salome, performed a dance that pleased Herod so much that a promise of "anything she wanted-- up to half of his Kingdom" [Mark 6:23] And Herodias had her ask for John the Baptist's head. That was the end of John.
Jesus's disciples had enough schooling in the Old Testament to remember the promise from Malachi that Elijah would return before the messiah. So, if Jesus was the messiah, where was Elijah? Jesus himself answered that quite clearly: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come." [Matthew 11:13-14]
So John the Baptist claimed not to be Elijah, but Jesus said he was. While John the Baptist was not have the name or memories of Elijah, he had the spirit, power, and tempermant of him. He was cut from the same mold as Elijah, yet slightly different-- he did not run from the Queen's threats as Elijah had done, but accepted imprisonment and died before Jesus's work was complete. The Jews hung on the promises of Elijah's return and waited patiently for him, even to this day. But, Jesus acknowledged John the Baptist as the Elijah that needed to come before him; who would know this subject better than he?