Elijah’s Temptations

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, Feb. 25, 2007

Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD (1KI 19:11).

Our subject for today is Elijah’s flight into the wilderness to hide from the fury of Queen Jezebel. In order for us to understand the irony of his flight, we need first to understand the circumstances that surround it, to see that his fear was groundless because rather than being in danger of his life, Elijah was at that moment at his most powerful, for he had just had his famous contest with the 450 prophets of Baal.

There are few places in the Old Testament Word where the vision of Jehovah, the angry and vengeful God, is more clearly presented than in the story of Elijah’s contest with the 450 prophets of Baal. At the Lord’s command, Elijah challenged Ahab and Jezebel’s 450 prophets to a public contest to establish once and for all whether Baal or Jehovah was God. Each side was to construct an altar, place a sacrifice upon it, and then call down fire from their God. The prophets of Baal performed every possible ritual, they leaped upon the altar, cried out, and cut themselves until the blood flowed. They strained from morning ‘til evening, but there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention. (1KI 18:29)

With the help of the people, Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, placed the wood and the sacrifice upon it, and then commanded that it be doused until it ran with water and the trench around it was filled. When Elijah called upon the name of the Lord, the fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. (1KI 18:38) At that dramatic moment, the people arose at his command and slew the 450 prophets of Baal.

If we were then told that the rest of the story was that Elijah had gone on to lead the people to overthrow the evil king Ahab and his even more evil wife Jezebel so that a king true to the worship of Jehovah could be restored, we would be ready, even eager, to believe it. However, as we read in the lessons, immediately after Jehovah’s great victory over Baal, Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah. Instead of laughing at her threats, which were made impotent by Jehovah’s power and protection, he instead fled from her in terror!

When teaching and leading, Elijah represents the Word, the prophetic voice of truth, and when he defeated the false prophets of Baal, it showed us how the Word, that is, the Lord’s Own truth in our minds, can have great power against the things in our lives that arise from selfish thoughts.

We are taught in the Heavenly Doctrines that the outward form of the rituals performed in the name of Baal were almost the same as those of the Hebrew ritual: for example both Elijah and the prophets of Baal built altars, and laid bulls upon them. (SeeAC1094:3). The fact that the worship of Baal and the worship of Jehovah have almost the same outward forms tells us that the same kind of thing can be said about our own lives, that we cannot tell from the outward appearance or action what kind of person someone is. (See HH 530)

Just as the difference between Baal worship and the worship of Jehovah is in the intention of the worshiper, rather than in the action itself, so we are to judge our own lives by that same standard – and when we have judged our own lives and found them wanting, we can have Elijah (the Word with us) use his power to destroy what is false and evil. When this happens, all appears well at first, but as soon as Jezebel appears, Elijah flees. What is it, that when joined to the false worship of Baal, can make it seem to us that the Word no longer has the power to help us, that makes us feel alone and abandoned by the Lord? It is what is represented by Jezebel when it is conjoined to what is represented by the prophets of Baal.

Jezebel represents the "delights of the loves of self and the world" (AE160). The worship of Baal represents "profane worship" (AC 5044:11), that is, "worship from the evils of the loves of self and the world" (AE160:2).

Everyone daydreams from time to time about winning money, or becoming famous – these thought enter unbidden into everyone’s mind, and we usually follow them for a bit because they seem to be innocent fun. Such thoughts can be made to leave as easily as they entered – as soon as they are seen for what they are and shunned. However, when the evil thoughts combine with an evil desire, and reach out into action as actual evils practised with malicious intent, then you have a powerful force that is able to quiet the prophetic voice of truth from the Word, even to the point of driving it away into the wilderness.

In our text Elijah runs first to the city Beer-sheeba, which in this context represents doctrine (See AC2723). But doctrine is a thing of the rational mind, and the rational mind has been blinded and closed by fear. Doctrine does no good for a person in this state, for this is the wilderness state. Elijah leaves Beer-sheeba and travels into the wilderness that represents the depths of his state of temptation.

The wilderness represents a place of obscurity and of temptation. As there is a lack of food and water in a wilderness, so there is a lack of good and truths in the wilderness state. Here Elijah judges himself harshly, sees himself as nothing but evil, and says, It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!" (1KI19:4) Someone in the depths of severe temptation may so desire the end of the state that they would rather be dead than to continue in it any longer. But what is the Lord’s response to Elijah’s prayer for release from temptation through death? Sleep, followed by a visit from an angel bringing him food and drink, representing the gathering of remains and the secret building up of trust in the Lord that takes place during temptation. Notice the similar themes in the story of the Lord’s own temptations in Gethsemane – that the angels came to minister unto Him while the disciples slept (SeeLUK22:39-48).

The Lord alone fight evils for us in temptation, but only when we ask Him to fight for us. When we realize that we can do nothing on our own without the Lord’s help, and we ask for that help, then the Lord can move quickly and gently into our lives to uplift and rebuild. The Lord is then able to appropriate goods and truths into our minds, building up a new will. This is what is signified by the angel giving Elijah a cake and water.

From the depths of temptation signified by the wilderness, fortified by the ministrations of the angel, Elijah begins to move upward in his states, though still in temptation, for the Word tells that that he travels for forty days, and the number "forty" represent temptation. While in the wilderness state, Elijah wanted to die, but now he comes into a state represented by Mt. Horeb. Horeb is the low mountain surrounding Mt. Sinai, forming a foundation and containant for Mt. Sinai. As Mt. Sinai represents the Word, Horeb, as its foundation, represents the externals or letter of the Word. Scripture tells us that Elijah left Beer-sheeba to travel to Horeb because someone in this kind of temptation finds the letter of scripture more appropriate to his needs than the ideas of rational doctrine. It is time for Elijah to return to the basics. Do we not ourselves instinctively turn to the stories from the letter of the Word, the Psalms, or the Lord’s Prayer in times of illness, death, or personal crisis?

Once at Horeb, Elijah first stays in a cave. In the internal sense, a cave signifies obscure good, such as exists in a state of temptation. (See AC2463) When we are in a state of temptation, we turn to external things from the scriptures, a verse that gives comfort or reinforces our conviction to shun evil, and in which we find protection and shelter. It may not seem like much, but it is something.

At this point the Lord Himself asks Elijah, What are you doing here, Elijah? (1KI19:9) Of course the Lord knew what Elijah was doing in the cave, but Elijah himself did not. But, it wasn’t until Elijah tried to answer that question for himself that his healing began. It is also important to note that the Lord did not speak harshly to Elijah, condemn him for running away, or for his failure to believe that the Lord would protect him against Jezebel. The Lord simply, quietly, asked him what he was doing.

Elijah replied, I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life. (1KI19:10)

The Lord listened and rather than responding to Elijah’s complaint, He gently spoke to him saying, Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD. (1KI19:11) He then showed Himself to Elijah as a terrifying wind that literally tore the rocks away from the mountains, as an earthquake, a fire, and finally a still, small voice. These different appearances all signify the way the Lord uplifts a person out of his low states, if he will only turn to the Lord. (SeeAC8823)

When the Lord showed Himself to Elijah in this way, He was giving no commands, He didn’t tell him to "cheer up" or "to get busy with something useful." All He needed to do was give words of comfort to uplift him, bring his mind into focus on the higher uses, turning his attention away from himself. We’re taught that one of the most important functions of temptation is that it opens the mind so that the Lord can flow in with comfort and hope. These gentle words elevated Elijah’s state sufficiently that he was able to come out of the cave, although it was still necessary for him to cover his face with his mantle because he was not yet fully restored to his former states of power. Again, the Lord asks him what he is doing, and once again Elijah lists all the same reasons why he is afraid and unhappy. But notice that this time Elijah speaks from the entrance of the cave, showing that he is literally being drawn out of his states of obscurity by the Lord.

It is at this point as we are coming up out of the states of despair in temptation but are still thinking of our own states, our own situation in life that we need to be redirected, need to be turned once again to the life of use and the needs of others. To represent this redirection towards the life of use, the Lord then speaks powerfully to Elijah, commanding him to go forth and to do important tasks – to anoint Hazael king of Syria, and to anoint Elisha to be a prophet in his stead. Both Elijah, and the person returning from the state of temptation, need to get back into the life of use, to stop thinking only about themselves, and to start thinking about the many other needs of life in this world that must be met in order to prepare for the life of heaven.

Finally, the Lord points out to Elijah that in spite of what he thinks, he is not alone in Israel, that there are yet seven thousand who have not kissed Baal, that is, that there is a great number of people who are also in true worship. No matter what Elijah may believe, he is not alone in Israel, he is not alone in his feelings of despair and weakness during temptation.

When we are thinking about our own problems, our own states of despair or fear, we may feel hopeless, we may feel that there is no point in taking one more step. But we must also know that although a person does not feel it, he is never more free than when in the depths of temptation, because then the Lord draws nearest to him, holding him up and protecting him from the attacks of the hells.

We can also learn from the story of Elijah’s temptation that our Heavenly Father has infinite patience with us. He never gives up. He leads us gently, constantly by giving us just those things that we genuinely need, and when we need and ask for them. He never gives us more than we can use, or less than we need. He sent an angel, a messenger, to feed and care for Elijah in the wilderness, and then, when Elijah was ready, called him to the cave in Horeb, and then from the cave to the entrance. Little by little, giving only what help and strength Elijah could bear, and only when he was ready to receive it freely, the Lord led him out of his states of despair.

Let us then remember to ask ourselves, when we struggle in temptation and feel like we are totally alone, to gently ask ourselves, as the Lord asked Elijah, "What are you doing?"

We need to remember to take time go back to the Word for comfort and strength,

to honestly look at what’s going on in our lives,

to evaluate our own states, our own parts in the problems, to search out the cause of our wilderness states,

and when we begin to see the cause, to have the courage to take the actions that will allow us to leave our state of temptation and despair.

Then we can to be led by the Lord, like Elijah, from the wilderness, to the cave, and finally to stand on the mountain before the Lord, to return to an active life of use in service of the Lord’s eternal kingdom. AMEN.


Lessons 

First Lesson: 1KI 19:1-21

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. {2} Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time." {3} And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. {4} But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, "It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!" {5} Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, "Arise and eat." {6} Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. {7} And the angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched him, and said, "Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you." {8} So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. {9} And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" {10} So he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life." {11} Then He said, "Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; {12} and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. {13} So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" {14} And he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life." {15} Then the LORD said to him: "Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. {16} "Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. {17} "It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. {18} "Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him." {19} So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. {20} And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, "Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." And he said to him, "Go back again, for what have I done to you?" {21} So Elisha turned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant. Amen.

Second Lesson: LUK 22:39-48

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. {40} When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." {41} And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, {42} saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done." {43} Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. {44} And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. {45} When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. {46} Then He said to them, "Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation." {47} And while He was still speaking, behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss Him. {48} But Jesus said to him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" Amen.

Third Lesson: AC 8823

And when the voice of the trumpet was going, and waxing strong mightily. That this signifies what is general of revelation through the angelic heaven, is evident from the signification of "the voice of the trumpet," as being heavenly or angelic truth conjoined with what is Divine (see n. 8815), thus what is general of revelation; for truth Divine is revelation, and that which is manifested through the medium of heaven is general relatively to the truth Divine itself in heaven, for it is without or around (n. 8815), and what is around and without is general relatively to that which is in the midst, or which is within; and from the signification of "going and waxing strong," as being the increase thereof.

For the case herein is as it is with sound which is on high, where the atmosphere is purer, and the sound is silent; but when it descends to lower regions where the atmosphere is denser, it becomes louder and more sonorous. So it is with Divine truth and Divine good, which in the highest are peaceful and cause no disturbance whatever; but when they descend toward lower things they gradually become unpeaceful, and finally tumultuous. This is what is so described by the Lord in the first book of the Kings to Elijah, when he was in Horeb:- Go forth, and stand on the mountain before Jehovah; behold Jehovah is passing by; so that there was a treat and strong wind rending the mountains, and breaking in pieces the rocks before Jehovah; Jehovah was not in the wind: then after the wind an earthquake; yet Jehovah was not in the earthquake: after the earthquake a fire; Jehovah was not in the fire: lastly after the fire a still small voice (xix. 11, 12). Amen.


Copyright © 1982 - 2007 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009