HomeBible StudyElijah: Prophet of Courage & Fear

Elijah: Prophet of Courage & Fear

I Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6


Ahab’s background. Seventh king of Israel. Ahab’s father was Omri, whom the scripture says did more evil than any king before him. Omri was the one who built the city of Samaria, which became the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. 

Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, who were Baal worshipers. The marriage was a political alliance that helped guarantee Israel’s defense if other nations like Assyria, were to attach her.

Jezebel’s background. Jezebel was from the city of Sidon and was exceedingly wicked. She was responsible for killing many of the followers of Yahweh. She was a key figure in political intrigue. She manipulated her husband, Ahab, to sell himself to do much evil. The scripture says, “Truly, there was no one like Ahab who had sold himself by doing evil in the eyes of Yahweh, whose wife Jezebel urged him on.” Jezebel was a strong personality whereas Ahab was weak. 

Sidon. Sidon was originally founded by Noah’s grandson. It was a center of trade and became a capital city of its region under Assyrian and Persian domination. It traded regularly with Assyria, Egypt, Cyprus, and the Aegean region. 

Jezebel was from Sidon and as a Sidonian princess, worshipped Baal. Interestingly, the prophet Elijah was at one point sent to Sidon to live with the woman of Zarephath, who took care of him. The place where Jezebel left is where God sent Elijah to protect him. Jezebel, from Sidon, was an idol worshiper who was out to kill Elijah, but Elijah was protected by another Sidonian woman, in her home in Sidon. 

Jeroboam’s background. Jeroboam was the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel. In order to prevent the Israelites from going to the required religious feasts every year, he set up two golden calves in Israel so that people would worship there instead of showing faithfulness to the law and visiting the temple in Judah three times a year. He was afraid if that happened that Israel would return to the rulership of David’s family. Jeroboam became the standard of judgment that God used for all of the subsequent kings of Israel. Several times it was said that such and such a king committed evil like Jeroboam did. But in the cases of Omri and Ahab, they committed more evil than Jeroboam did. 

Israel’s background at this time. Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom, which Ahab ruled, and the southern kingdom of Judah over which the house of David ruled. The kingdom was split under Rehoboam, son of Solomon. At this time, Israel was completely given over the idol worship and this persisted for many years. As a result, Israel was under condemnation that was previously laid out in the Mosaic Law. Specifically, there was to be drought and famine on the land for their sins (Deuteronomy 4, 28, 29, 32, Leviticus 26).

Background on Baal and the particulars of Baalism. Baal was the Canaanite storm god and the bringer of rain. Baal worship was essentially fertility worship, which was important to the area since the land was dependent upon regular rains for crops and drinking water. Baal worship included sexual fertility rights, one reason why it was so popular. Baal worship also featured numerous altars and pillars that were set up throughout the land. 

Baal was said to die every year and then be resurrected in time for the giving of the seasonal rains. Of course, Jesus also rose from the dead, but the scripture says of him that he died once for all mankind and rose from the dead once never to die again, and he holds all authority over the earth. Jesus is much superior to Baal. 

Baal was worshiped by virtually every Ancient Near East culture of the day. Baal worship later infiltrated the Kingdom of Judah when Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, married King Jehoram of Judah and later ruled the kingdom for a short time after the death of Jehoram.  Ironically, Jezebel was trampled to death by horses and Athaliah died at the horses entrance to the palace. 

Elijah’s background. Elijah is introduced abruptly in the text. We are given no background for him other than his name, Elijah the Tishbite. The reference to Tishbite may be a reference to the city he lived in, but archeology has not discovered the exact location of this city as of yet. Elijah’s name means, “My God is the Lord.” This signifies that Elijah may have come from a godly family, that they would give him such a name. Just as his introduction is very abrupt, and his name is also abrupt, like a bold declaration of faith in God, so too, the beginning of his ministry is also very abrupt, suddenly appearing and saying, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (I Kings 17:1).


In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2 And the word of the Lord came to him: 3 “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. 6 And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.


(v.30) More [evil] than all who were before him. The Lord repeats that statement twice in our passage. Remember that if something is repeated in scripture, it is because the Lord wants to draw our attention to something in the text. In this case, the statement is repeated in verses 30 and 33. God is emphasizing just how great Ahab’s evil really is. Thus, God is going to act to confront Ahab and Israel of their sin. A terrible judgment awaits. 

God tended not to judge a king or a nation until they reached one of two thresholds. First, they had to commit great evil like the people before them, or two, a greater evil. In this way, the one doing the evil is approving of the evil that was done before them, and so they compound their guilt. Both Omri and Ahab did this, so God was going to judge Ahab for his sin.

Interestingly, we see the same thing in Judah, when Manasseh committed more evil than the people God drove out before them. Then God declared punishment. However, unlike Ahab, Manasseh actually repented of his sin (II Chronicles 33). 

This practice of imputing guilt to later generations can also be seen in Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish leaders of his day. Recall what Jesus said to them: 

“So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation” (Luke 11:48-51).

(v.31) …and served Baal and worshiped him. Ahab was influenced by his wife to commit idol worship. There is a significant tie-in between his marriage to Jezebel in this verse and Ahab’s spiritual unfaithfulness. The marriage is mentioned as a cause of Ahab’s behavior. 

God had previously warned Israel that they were not to marry outside of Israel because their hearts would be torn away from serving the Lord to serve idols. We see this in 

Exodus 34:12-16, “Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim…and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.” 

God warned Israel again in Deuteronomy 7:3-5. “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.”

Notice that in both cases the people are warned not only not to marry outside Israel, but they are told to break down their pillars and false idols. This is exactly the opposite of what Ahab did.

(v.33) Asherah. What is an Asherah or Asherah pole? The name Asherah is used for a Canaanite fertility goddess and the wooden pole that symbolizes her. Most occurrences of “Asherah” in the Bible refer to a sacred pole or tree used in Canaanite worship. However, extrabiblical texts found at Ugarit shed light on other occurrences, suggesting that Asherah is the name of a goddess. The name is used 33 times in the Old Testament. Over 850 terra-cotta figurines, believed to be Asherah idols, have been found to date. We’ve already seen in Exodus 34 that God required Israel to destroy all Asherah when they entered the Promised Land. 

(v.1) There shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. As a storm god, it was believed that Baal brought the rains to the land. But Elijah declared God to be supreme because Baal could not prevent God from holding back the rains. Thus, this was a direct challenge to the worship of Baal, which was supported by the throne.

What God is doing here is something that theologians refer to as a covenant lawsuit. God sees the covenant unfaithfulness that Ahab is committing and he confronts Ahab with a punishment found in his covenant with Israel. God had declared that he would withhold the rains if Israel was unfaithful to him. 

“The heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24). 

God is declaring through this passage, and later in the text, that only he is the true God. He calls Ahab and Israel back to covenant faithfulness. He directly confronts the false idol of the day and reveals his reality and superiority. This was also something that God did in Genesis 1 when he lists the creation days. It also happened with the various plagues that God sent on Egypt in Exodus. In these passages, Moses recounts the order of creation and the judgments, which Israel would have understood as a direct challenge to the gods of Egypt. He was, essentially, telling Israel not to go back to Egypt, that their gods were not real, and that they should worship him only. 

This was twice that Elijah used water to illustrate divine authority. The first was holding back the rain in 7:1. The second was on Mount Carmel when Elijah ordered water poured over a sacrifice upon which God sent fire to “lick up” the water dry in I Kings 18. After this, Elijah then prayed for rain. 

Here is an interesting thing about our prayer life. In I Kings 18:1, the Lord says to Elijah, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” Then Elijah and the prophets of Baal have a contest about whose god is the real god. The prophets of Baal are slaughtered, and then Elijah begins to pray for rain. He prays earnestly, over a period of time, then the Lord begins to form clouds, and a torrential rain takes place. Notice that even though God declared in advance that he would send rain, Elijah still prayed earnestly that God would do what he declared in advance that he would do. Sometimes, we need to participate with God in what he plans to do through praying for that which God intends. 

(v.3) Depart from here…hide yourself. This little phrase may seem innocuous at first. But within the larger context of Elijah’s story, we have a contrast. In this passage, God sends Elijah away after boldly confronting King Ahab. Presumably, God did this for Elijah’s protection. This is why he says to Elijah, “Hide yourself.” What Elijah did in this passage took a lot of guts. He directly confronted Ahab and Jezebel, which could have gotten him killed. Then God tells him to go hide. Contrast this with a later event in Elijah’s story. Look at what happened after Elijah defeated Baal’s prophets in I Kings 19:3, “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah…”

Sometimes we have great courage in our relationship with the Lord, and other times we may be driven into fear. 

(v.3) …the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. This was an area in Gilead, near Elijah’s homeland. There was significant water there to sustain Elijah, and as we know from later in Elijah’s story, the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land, just as Elijah predicted. 

(v.6) …the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening. This provision by God parallels God’s provision of quail and manna to Israel in the desert. He provided them meat and bread (manna). 

This was not a cut of filet and some buttered rolls. God provided some basics in order for Elijah to sustain himself. But here’s the interesting thing. Ravens, which brought Elijah his food twice a day, were unclean animals in Leviticus 11:15 and Deuteronomy 14:14. Ravens were scavengers, picking the meat off of dead animals. This is likely what the ravens brought Elijah to eat. The Mosaic law stated that the Israelites should not eat anything that died of itself (Leviticus 22:8). 

God is giving Elijah an object lesson about his provision and salvation. God saves by whomever he chooses. Here, it was unclean ravens that provided for him. Later in Elijah’s story, it would be by an unclean gentile, a woman in of Zarephath in Sidon, the very home of Jezebel, who provides for him. Here is the same kind of object lesson about Gentiles that God gave Peter in Acts about Cornelius. 

Now, there is a portion of this passage that is not included in your book, but it offers insight into Elijah’s relationship with Ahab. It’s in I Kings 16:34. It says, 

“In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.”

What does this small aside have to do with Ahab and Elijah? Very simply, the author is demonstrating that God will always perform his word. Joshua prophesied the death of the first and last born to rebuild Jericho, and that’s exactly what happened in this passage. It is presented as a warning that God will do what he promises he will do. Just as Hiel lost his sons, so too, God is about to work through Elijah to fulfill his word to Ahab. If God is willing to fulfill his word hundreds of years later after a promise, then how much more will he do it when he says he will do it right now, just as Elijah said he would hold back the rain?

What have we learned so far?

King Ahab and Jezebel were corrupt, evil rulers who violated God’s covenant law with Israel. 

God determined to punish Israel for abandoning him for a false god (Baal). 

God proves himself the ruler of nature. 

God sustains the righteous.


What is the writer’s big idea for this passage?

God disciplines the guilty but sustains his people. 

Through God’s challenge to Ahab, God is calling the Northern Kingdom to repent of idol worship and obey the covenant God established with Israel. This is the first in a series of episodes where God confronts Ahab regarding his wickedness to try and turn the kingdom back to the covenant. But as we know from elsewhere in scripture, Ahab does not repent.


How has God disciplined you when you have sinned against him? 

How has God sustained you in a troubling time? 

Elijah was a brave man to confront the king who could kill him on a whim. Yet, that did not stop Elijah from declaring the truth of the Lord. Like Elijah, we may need to provide truth to a situation we face or may see others in. Elijah confronted Ahab’s sin. 

Have you ever confronted someone’s sin? Have you ever encouraged someone to repent of their sin so that they can come to know the Lord? Has someone ever confronted you of your sin? 

Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as General Manager of The Better FM, an online radio station for Asia. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years.
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