T4G 7: Ligon Duncan, “The Underestimated God: God’s Ruthless, Compassionate Grace in the Pursuit of His Own Glory and His Ministers’ Joy” (1 Kings 19)
Audio available here.
1 Kings 19
1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
3 Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came 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 asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.
7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8 And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. 9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks 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 the sound of a low whisper.13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
15 And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that 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, …
2 Kings 2:1-14
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.
2 And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
3 And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.
5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.
7 Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” 10 And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.”
11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
2 Corinthians 4:6
6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Discouragement is no stranger in the lives of many faithful pastors
I want to give special encouragement to discouraged and downcast pastors.
There are things to learn in our disappointments. We can think, “If I’m faithful to God, trusting in his grace, empowered by Spirit—I will not have crushing darkness as part of my experience.” And then it comes. What’s happening to me, O God? What am I supposed to do? I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t think it’d be this way. I didn’t think I’d be here now.
If we study our discouragements, we’ll see what we love and what we really believe and where we really rest and what our real treasure is. And it won’t always be pretty.
In discouragement we forget that God is God and God is good.
In disappointment and discouragement we are tempted to succumb to idolatry, because we begin to think that there is a greater treasure that has been withheld or taken away, a greater treasure than what God has or can give us.
1 Kings 18 is where you want to be in ministry—you don’t want to be in 1 Kings 19.
What are your greatest losses in this life? What are your unfulfilled dreams, your unsatisfied and unsatisfiable desires and plans, yearnings, and longings? I wonder what they are. I wonder what are the hopes and treasures you’ve never obtained, though you’ve always wanted them, or had them taken away from you from before your very eyes. I don’t ask whether you have these things, I know you do, we all do. Some great to the point of being unbearable, some less so, but we all have them. And my friends, the question is—what will we do with them?
Did you think that growing in grace, and being faithful in the ministry would spare you from those disappointments, crushing heartbreaks, unfulfilled yearnings?
I wonder how you’ve responded to yours—how have you responded to the loss of your greatest treasure, or your failure to obtain it? I wonder what you’ve cried out deep in the darkness of the night through blinding, hopeless tears, and I wonder what you’ve hoped for after you’ve asked God, ‘Why?’ and you’ve heard no audible answer, and your heart is just as restless and unsettled as it was before you asked. And I wonder how you’ve responded to a life you’ve longed for, slipping through your fingers right before your very eyes.
I wonder what you’ve done, because what you do in response to that may be the most important thing you do in this life.
Elijah has something to teach us about that. Because that is the story of this man, Elijah.
It’s the story of a man of power—no one except Moses had a ministry of power up to this point in the OT. This man yearned for good and great things and who served the Lord courageously. And yet he knew what it was to walk in this world right up to the very end of this life with his hopes utterly dashed. But he also knew the relentless, ruthless, compassion God who pursued him for his glory and the good of his people.
1. Even people who believe in God’s sovereignty can fail to believe that the Lord is God!
After his victory, a messenger showed up to him with a letter, written in the hand of a woman named Jezebel who said, “May it happen to me if at this time tomorrow I don’t have your hide. I will murder you.”
And suddenly this man forgot every drop of theology he had ever taught and he ran scared.
The expression of Elijah’s discouragement: flight in fear.
This man is a disappointed man; a discouraged man. Why?
Because Elijah had yearned for one thing and one thing only, as far as we know, through the whole course of his existence as a prophet of the Lord—he wanted to see God glorified in Israel. He wanted Israel to turn back to God. It wanted repentance. He wanted conversion. He wanted to be the instrument of conversion and restoration in Israel so Israel glorified God. Then he gets a message saying he’s going to be dead this time tomorrow. He realizes: It’s not going to happen the way I dreamed. It’s not going to happen.
It’d be easy to give him spiritual counsel that would not resonate with him. He cares more about his message than most of us do. He is so discouraged because he longs so much for God to be glorified. And when it doesn’t materialize, his world almost comes to an end.
You long to see conversions—and you’re not seeing them the way you long for them.
You see false prophets drawing in hundreds and thousands—and you have 65 people, none of whom can get along with one another.
God has blessed your ministry with conversions and edification, but for 25 years God has not saved your own son.
You love Jesus and your wife loves Jesus, but she doesn’t like you.
You fill in the blank. There is despair and discouragement that can come even to faithful servants. And when it comes you learn what you love, believe, treasure, and where you rest.
Elijah’s deepest dream has been shattered.
So he is running. To the south, not just to Judah, but past Judah and down in to the wilderness to the mountain of God. And then at the mountain of God he went into a cave and wanted to die.
2. Even people who fight against idolatry can succumb to it.
The source of Elijah’s discouragement: he forgot his name and he forgot the message he wanted Israel to embrace.
His name means Yahweh is Lord—and he’s forgotten it.
God first comes in a whirlwind. It’s not an F5, it’s an EF6.
And then the Lord comes in a mighty earthquake and then in fire, but Elijah’s still inside; he wants to die.
This is a picture of what Elijah wanted—a spectacular demonstration of God’s power, as the Lord as the only God. And it didn’t happen. God did not purpose to answer the cries of Elijah’s heart that God would operate spectacularly.
And finally a small whisper inexorably draws him out.
Then God says, “What are you doing here? This is not where you’re supposed to be! I’ve got stuff for you to do!” And then His follow up to that is, “Head north, young man, and you pass right through Judah and you pass right through Israel, and you head straight to Syria because”—you want to hear the tender words of compassion? Hear God’s tender words of compassion: “Elijah, I’m putting you on the shelf. You’re done. The only ministry that you’re going to have for the rest of your life is preparing the way for others who are going to do the job that I had sent you to do.”
You cannot possibly imagine how hard those words were for a man who had lived for one thing.
You know, when a voice whispers in your ear, “You ought to always have your heart’s desires.” You can be assured that that voice always speaks with a hiss from a forked tongue. But when you hear a voice say to you, “You see that treasure? The thing that you want more than anything else in the world? You can’t have it, but I’ll give you Me instead.” You can always be assured where that voice comes from. It’s just like you, Lord.
Jesus was battling idolatry in the garden (not my will, but yours be done). And God loves Elijah too much to let him stay there.
God will not let you preach a message that you do not live.
Lord, you are hard to your servants! No. Even when Elijah can’t eat, God sends an angel to prod him to eat a hot breakfast.
Elijah’s ministry is essentially over. It doesn’t end well. Elijah has all but had his day.
3. Even when it looks like God is being hard on his servants, you can be assured that his provision is staggeringly and lavishly loving, generous, good and kind.
The balm of God on Elijah’s discouraged soul: God’s lovingkindness is the ground of a certain hope and everlasting encouragement
But see 2 Kings 2. Look at vv. 1-14, and vv. 9-10 in particular. Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah says something really strange: “You will only be able to get it if you see me when I’m taken.” What is up with that? What do you mean I’m not going to get it if I don’t see you when I’m taken, but I am going to get it if I see you when I am taken?
Look at verse 11: “As they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”
You don’t think God didn’t know the deepest desires of Elijah’s heart? You think he doesn’t care about your dashed hopes and broken dreams? God brings him home by fire and whirlwind—I know my servant’s heart. This is how we’re bringing him up.
The man who was so dead of all his hopes and bereft of all his treasure that he didn’t want to see the glory of God in the whirlwind was ushered into glory—by a whirlwind and horses and chariots of fire.
“And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more.”
Why did Elisha have to see him? So that he could come back and tell the writer of Second Kings, “Let me tell you how God took him! He not only took him on horses and chariots of fire; He took him by the whirlwind and he saw His glory.” Because the One who took him is worth infinitely more than anything he had ever taken from Elijah. And He showed him His glory whether Elijah wanted to see it or not.
But I want to tell you my friends, it gets better than this. This is not the last time we see Elijah in the Bible. Turn to Luke 9:28ff.
Elijah: I want you to go down on a mountain again. There’s something I want you to see.
He’s on a mountain. Do you see what Elijah was able to see? He was is looking into the face of Jesus and beholding the transfigured glory of God (2 Cor 4). It all makes sense now.
Do you see the lesson that Elijah has learned? A costly and brutal lesson. God has ruthlessly and emphatically pursued his fundamental idolatry and he’s ripped it from his heart and crushed it and then He said, “Don’t underestimate me. I’m enough for you, Elijah. I’m the only treasure worth having and I’m the only treasure that can’t be taken away from you. Elijah, I am to be your vision.”
Every single one of us faces that choice. Believers face this choice and they ache and they cry and they mourn and they ask why. They ask it a thousand times. But in the end, they go limping along their way for the rest of their lives having learned His grace is sufficient for me and His power is perfected in my weakness and they go on fixed on Him as their treasure.