Elijah was a prophet.
He suddenly appears in 1 Kings 17, telling the king of Israel, Ahab, that the dew and the rain will not come again until he, Elijah, says so. And then he disappears from public for about three years. During that time out of the public eye, he first lives by a wilderness stream and then has a room in the house of a widow. In both places food is provided in miraculous ways.
Elijah’s action feels abrupt, until we see that Moses predicted this very thing. In Deuteronomy, Moses’s last lecture at the edge of the Promised Land, he warns:
“Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and He will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:16-17).
Before Ahab, king after king allowed the people to worship other gods, to cover all their deity options. There had been prophets before Elijah, warning the kings and the people. But Ahab was the worst: “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife.” (1 Kings 21:25). As God’s response to Ahab’s behavior, Elijah appears, says that the heavens will be shut, and then disappears.
When Elijah shows up in public after three years, he meets again with King Ahab. He tells Ahab that it’s time to decide which god is real: the fertility god, Baal, that Ahab’s wife Jezebel has been worshiping, or the Lord, the God of Israel. Elijah invites Ahab to a showdown on Mount Carmel. Two altars. Two sacrificial bulls. Two gods. The being who sends fire and lights the altar is the winner, is The God.
The prophets of Baal build an altar. They spend a whole day praying for fire. Nothing happens.
As evening approaches, Elijah builds an altar with twelve stones. He digs a trench around it. He pours so much water over it that the wood is soaked and the trench is full. And then he says,
“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 comes. The wood, the bulls, the water, the stones and the soil are burned up. The people worship God. They capture and execute the false prophets. Elijah watches for rain. When a small cloud appears, he warns King Ahab to hurry home before the storm. And Elijah runs faster than the chariot back to Jezreel, Ahab’s capital.
And when Jezebel hears the news, she warns Elijah that she will kill him. And after all Elijah’s experiences of God’s protection and provision over the previous three years, he is afraid. He runs for his life. Ninety miles to Beersheba. Another day into the wilderness. A simple prayer: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.” And a deep, exhausted sleep.