When Moses gave his final sermons to Israel in the book of Deuteronomy, he warned Israel that if they followed idols, the Lord would bring famine and draught upon the land (Deut 11:16-17). Elijah’s first recorded words reveal that the Lord would be faithful to His word of judgment upon His people. Elijah told Ahab, “As the LORD God of Israel lives, I stand before Him, and there will be no dew or rain during these years except by my command!” (1 Kgs 17:1). Despite the famine that would come on the land, 1 Kgs 17:4-24 records that the Lord provided in a special way for both Elijah and a faithful widow of Zarephath in Sidon, to whom the Lord sent him.
First Kings 18 recounts what may be Elijah’s greatest miracle, a demonstration of the Lord’s jealousy for the affections of His people. The miraculous scene on Mount Carmel was occasioned by Israel’s wavering opinion between the supremacy of the Lord or Baal. Elijah would have none of it, saying, “If Yahweh is God, follow Him. But if Baal, follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21). When the people would not answer the prophet’s exhortation, he initiated the showdown between the Lord and Baal, praying, “LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that at Your word I have done all these things. Answer me, LORD! Answer me so that this people will know that You, Yahweh, are God and that You have turned their heart back” (1 Kgs 18:36-37). When his prayer was answered, the Israelite bystanders assisted Elijah in slaughtering the pagan prophets (1 Kgs 18:40) and Elijah announced that rain was coming (1 Kgs 18:42-46).
But 1 Kings 19 notes that though Elijah had demonstrated remarkable courage before the pagan prophets, the imminent threat of Jezebel prompted Elijah to run for his life (1 Kgs 19:3). Elijah became so despondent that he prayed to the Lord that he might die (1 Kgs 19:4-5). But the Lord was not done with Elijah and helped the prophet understand that he was not alone. Elijah was the first of Israel’s distinguished prophets and Elisha would follow in his steps (1 Kgs 19:19-21).
Elijah was so prominent that he became a paradigmatic figure in the storyline of Scripture.
(1) Elijah’s ministry provided a framework for understanding Jesus and John the Baptist. Many thought Jesus was Elijah come back to life (Matt 16:14//Mark 8:28//Luke 9:19). Jesus used Elijah’s ministry to the widow in Sidon—outside the territory of Israel—to justify His ministry to Gentiles. “I assure you: No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24), Jesus told the crowd in Nazareth at the outset of His public ministry. Jesus stated that Elijah foreshadowed John and that after John the law and the prophets would be understood differently—in light of His own ministry (Matt 11:13-14//Matt 17:12//Mark 9:12-13). Elijah serves not only as a prototype for John and Jesus, but as one whose ministry pointed forward to the days of fulfillment signaled by John and fulfilled in Jesus. Peter learned as much at the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus, God’s Son (Matt 17:1-9//Mark 9:2-10//Luke 9:28-36).
(2) Elijah’s call upon Elisha set a pattern for Jesus’ call to His disciples. Elisha wanted to tell his parents goodbye before following Elijah in ministry (1 Kgs 19:20). When crowds began to follow after Jesus, someone asked if he could go and bury his father before committing to discipleship. Jesus replied that the ones He calls should follow after Him above all earthly relationships and without delay (Matt 8:22//Luke 9:60).
(3) Elijah’s fear and isolation illustrated how the Jews of the early church felt when so few of their number were following Christ. After the Lord answered Elijah’s prayer and sent rain on the land, Jezebel chased Elijah and the prophet hid in a cave. Elijah told the Lord that he feared for his life, being the only faithful Israelite left to counter Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kgs 19:10, 14). But the Lord told Elijah that there were yet 7,000 faithful in Israel that had not bowed to Baal (1 Kgs 19:18). Paul saw Elijah’s situation as an illustration of the way that the Lord had reserved a remnant of Israelites, chosen by grace to believe in Christ (Rom 11:2-5).
(4) Elijah’s faith provided a model for prayer in the church. Draught and famine provided the backdrop for Elijah’s miracle-working ministry (1 Kgs 17:1; 18:1). In 1 Kgs 18:42, “he bowed down to the ground and put his face between his knees,” when he prayed for rain. Then, “in a little while, the sky grew dark with clouds and wind, and there was a downpour” (1 Kgs 18:45). James encouraged his audience that Elijah was a man just like them—so they ought to pray and expect God to even heal the sick among them (Jas 5:13-18). “The intense prayer of the righteous is very powerful,” James wrote (Jas 5:16).
(5) Elijah’s ability to cause drought and bring rain is echoed in John’s vision of the two witnesses in Revelation. In 1 Kgs 17:1, Elijah declared that it would not rain and in 1 Kgs 18:40-46 announced that it would soon rain. In Rev 11:6, John wrote that the two witnesses in the holy city have the power to shut the sky and prevent rain from falling while they testified of God’s message.