It's Not Broken!

1 Kings 19:1-18

16 May 2010

Basingstoke Baptist Church

Morning service

Note: an acknowledgement is due to Dale Ralph Davis who has written by far the most helpful material I found on this chapter.


This morning I want to look at a famous episode in the life of the prophet Elijah with you. So please turn again to 1 Kings chapter 19 which was read to us earlier. One commentator says that, in his view, this is one of the most important chapters in the Old Testament, and one most consistently misinterpreted. So that should whet our appetites!

So, where are we in the Bible's story? Well, by this point, God's people has divided into two kingdoms: there is a northern kingdom called Israel or Samaria, and a southern kingdom called Judah which includes Jerusalem.

Elijah is a prophet of God in the northern kingdom where a character called Ahab has become king. The Bible's verdict on Ahab is damning. It says that he did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.ref

Among his crimes, Ahab has married a foreigner, Jezebel, and has begun to worship her gods, and she has begun to persecute and kill anyone loyal to Yahweh: Israel's God and ours.

In chapter 18, the previous chapter, Elijah has taken on the prophets of Baal, one of the foreign idols, and scored a magnificent victory. The Lord demonstrated decisively that he is God and there is no other. All 450 of the prophets of Baal were slaughtered, and Elijah, prophet of the true God, was triumphant.

Which brings us to the start of 1 Kings 19.

Broken interpretations

Now, the verse in the passage which gets by far the most attention, and is clearly the turning point, is verse 12. Reading from verse 11, Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.ref Perhaps it's most well-known in the Authorised Version, and after the fire a still small voice.

This is my question this morning: what is going on here? Why was God not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire? Why did he speak to Elijah in a "gentle whisper"? What is going on here?

Well, the first thing I want to to is to talk about what I think is not going on here.

The usual, rather superficial, understanding of what is going on with the still, small voice is that we are to learn something from it about prayer, and how God speaks to us today.

For example, from a sermon given at Durham Cathedral,

I see in Elijah's voice one of those watersheds in the history of religion... the contemplative inwardness of this story marks it as a truly defining moment.

So, this event is about "contemplative inwardness". Another quotation,

When people think of the still small voice, they are looking for verbal instructions — words. That's natural, but God excels at nonverbal communication: urges, not words. He speaks with inner wellings, rising energies in the body.

"Inner wellings"; "rising energies". Unfortunately, I could list examples of this kind of nonsense all morning. Though it pains me to say it, even Charles Spurgeon goes a bit over the top on this one. On this verse, he says,

The gentle zephyr refreshes the fevered brow, but the sufferer scarcely knows that it has passed through the sick chamber and is gone, so soft is its heaven-given breath... Softly and gently works the Holy Spirit, even as the breath of spring which dissolves the iceberg and melts the glacier.

Make of that what you will, but there's no sign in the text that God is teaching us here that he usually speaks to us in still, small ways, or that he's given up in any way on the spectacular.

In fact, this passage is not about how God speaks to us at all. It's about how he spoke to his prophet Elijah on one particular occasion, and for a very particular reason.

So, if that's what the story is not about, then what is it about? To find out, we need to look for the clues in the context.

A broken prophet

So let's look at the story.

Elijah has come a long way. He's started his journey right up in the far north of Israel at Mount Carmel where he confronted the prophets of Baal.

But now Elijah is on the run. The great demonstration on Carmel seems to have achieved little except to provoke Jezebel to threaten Elijah's life. And in chapter 19 verse 3 we find that he's fled from Carmel way up in the north of Israel to Beersheba in Judah, the southern kingdom. That's about 120 miles from Carmel, several days' journey, and well beyond Jezebel's reach.

He arrives exhausted, but the Lord tends to him in his exhaustion and his despair and strengthens him for a further journey. And that's where we find the key to the passage.

Verse 8, Elijah got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.ref

Where is this Horeb, the mountain of God? Well, this passage starts to unlock when you realise that Horeb is Sinai: the very same mountain in the desert where Moses met with God and received the covenant. [E.g. Deuteronomy 5:2 ref.]

The importance of this is flagged for us in the text by God's repeated question when he gets there. Verses 9 and 13, What are you doing here, Elijah?ref This is usually understood as being a rebuke to Elijah: "what are you doing here, Elijah?", or "what are you doing here, Elijah?"; go back and get on with the work!

But I think the right emphasis is more like, "what are you doing here, Elijah?" God's emphasis is on the place. It's an invitation for Elijah to explain why he has decided to show up at Horeb-stroke-Sinai.

And it's not an accident that he's there! In verse 3 Elijah had just run 120 miles from Carmel to Beersheba and he's exhausted, but safe. Beersheba is in the southern kingdom of Judah and was well beyond Jezebel's reach: so why on earth would he then travel south for a further 250 miles to Horeb? Note that He's plainly done it with God's blessing: in verse 7 the angel of the Lord strengthened him for this very journey.

No, it's not an accident that Elijah has pitched up at Sinai, the very same place in which Moses received the law and covenant back in Exodus. Once we have noticed this, then we can begin to see a whole bunch of other suggestive connections.

Note the following:

The writer invites us to see these connections! We are supposed to compare and contrast Elijah on Sinai with Moses on Sinai: then we shall get the point of the text.

So, God's question is crucial: "what are you doing here, Elijah?"

A broken covenant?

Let me digress for a moment and tell you about the time I nearly managed to have an argument with a Japanese person.

Now, since I've been working for a Japanese company for almost 12 years, you'd think a good argument ought to be a fairly common occurrence. But it turns out that Japanese people are very hard to pick a fight with.

Anyway, on one of my trips to Japan a while ago, I decided to invest in a set of noise-cancelling headphones to make my all-too-frequent plane journeys a little more comfortable. But when I tried them, it seemed to me that they weren't working. My tests indicated no detectable noise-cancelling capability.

So, I decided to take them back to the place where I had bought them and get some new ones. But although I took it up with the manager most energetically — and largely in sign language — she refused to replace them. She insisted very politely, but very firmly, that they were not broken. And, actually, I have to admit, she turned out to be quite right.

But that's what you do, isn't it? If you've got something you think is faulty, you take it back to where it came from, don't you?

And that's exactly what Elijah is doing at Mount Sinai.

A few hundred years earlier Moses had received God's covenant there. This was God's precious promise to Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people, along with the ten commandments, the law and all the instructions for worship. The covenant was what marked God's people out; it was what guaranteed them security and prosperity and favour from God. It ought to have been their most precious possession.

But now Elijah is taking the covenant back. He thinks it's broken; he thinks he needs a new one. That's why he's come to Sinai!

We see it in his answer to God's question. God asks him, What are you doing here, Elijah? And Elijah replies,

I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.ref

"The covenant is broken", he is saying. "They've broken your altars; they've broken your prophets, and now they're trying to break me". When the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai had made a golden calf to worship, God had made an offer to Moses to finish altogether with the descendants of Abraham and start all over again with Moses under a new covenant. Moses refused to go along with it, but it almost seems as if Elijah is wanting to take God up on the offer. The covenant is broken, he says, I've brought it back. Make a new one with me: I'm the only one left.

It's not broken!

So what will God do? Is the covenant broken beyond repair? Does Elijah need a new one?

Now, at last, we can see the point of verses 11 and 12. In these peculiar events God simply says to Elijah, "it's not broken, you know. It's not broken.".

What Elijah was looking for was a repeat of Mount Sinai. On that day, God's voice had thundered out of the fire. Elijah wanted to hear God speaking with a roar of thunder once again; he wanted to feel God's presence making the earth shake; he wanted the Lord to descend in fire; he wanted a repeat of the covenant-giving theophany that Moses had experienced. He's taken the covenant back and he wants a new one.

But what happens? God is not in the wind. God is not in the earthquake. God is not in the fire. Instead of the roar of thunder, there is just a gentle whisperref. Literally "a voice, calm, soft".

"It's not broken!" God is saying. "You don't need a new one. There is not going to be a repeat performance."

The scene is as different as possible from what Moses experienced. Politely but firmly God declines to issue Elijah with a new covenant: no refund, no replacement; it's not broken.

The covenant Elijah's got — God's covenant with Moses — remains the one by which he will continue to work. Despite all appearances, it's not broken. And so in verses 15 to 18 we see that God sends Elijah back to get on with his job: enforcing the existing covenant.

So that's the one point of this sermon: just three words, "it's not broken". Despite all appearances, despite the sin of the people and their rejection of God, despite all Elijah's circumstances, when he brings the covenant back to God, God simply tells him, "it's not broken".

Do you see? This chapter doesn't really have much to teach us about prayer at all, but everything to teach us about God's faithfulness.

And we know that God never did break that covenant, despite the strongest possible provocation. But one Friday about 900 years later he did fulfil it and complete it.


How are we to make use of this truth in our lives today?

Well, if we are followers of Jesus, the like Elijah, you and I are under a covenant with God. He has committed himself to us utterly, and nothing can break that commitment. Our covenant is called the gospel: it is the story of the sacrifice of God's son in our place, and his resurrection to life again so that we can know eternal life with God forever.

I just want to make two applications from the words of Elijah.

Whatever the world looks like, the gospel is not broken

First, whatever the world around us looks like, the gospel is not broken.

As we look around at the godlessness of our society it's easy to feel like Elijah did. God is dismissed; Christianity is sidelined or worse; evil is flourishing; churches are withering.

It's tempting, isn't it, to believe that we need a new message. How can this simple, strange 2000 year old message of a man on a cross possibly be relevant to a sophisticated post-modern society like our own?

Time and again, the church down the ages has felt that the simple, unadorned gospel message of Jesus is inadequate and ineffective. Yet the paradox is that it is only in changing the gospel that it becomes ineffective.

But if we were to go to God and ask him for a new work today, a new message, you know what he'd say: it's not broken. You don't need a new message or a new work; live and speak the old message with all your hearts. Whether in a still, small voice or not, he'd simply tell us, "it's not broken".

The old, old gospel in all its foolishness and weakness remains the way God chooses to work in the world, even today. It doesn't need fixing. It's not broken. Keep proclaiming it, keep living it, keep believing it with all your hearts, and never be tempted to change it. Have confidence that, however foolish it may seem, as you tell your friends, neighbours, family and colleagues this simple, strange message of Jesus, God will be at work.

Whatever my life looks like, the gospel is not broken

The second application is that, whatever our life's circumstances look like, the gospel is not broken.

In verse 4 Elijah had prayed that God would take his life: he was in despair. And in verse 10 he claims, I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.ref

Sometimes, our life circumstances cause us to doubt the gospel, to doubt God's goodness. Sickness, accident, a death, a divorce, financial struggles, stress at work, the breakdown of a relationship, persecution. In the face of these things, it can seem like God has given up on us. So much for the gospel; so much for God's promises.

And our circumstances can make us doubt God's capability. What has this pathetic message about a Jew on a cross got to do with the pain I'm facing today? How can it possibly help me? So we look elsewhere to find healing and fulfilment.

But God would say to us: no, it's not broken. Don't give up on the gospel. In the end, it is only in the sin-bearing death of my son that you will eventually find healing.

Whatever your life circumstances look like, they never mean that the gospel is broken. In fact it may be the only thing in your life that isn't: so cling on to the gospel with all your might.