Elijah’s exhausted flight into the desert after his confrontation with Jezebel and her legion of Baal-prophets should earn from us a bit of sympathy.
The extravagance of his victory over Baal’s servants in a high-stakes mountain-top contest has not erased the singularity of Elijah’s experience. He has won the day, but he has been alone in it. Triumph has not managed to trump solitude. When YHWH engages his prophet in his mountain redoubt—this strange YHWH who suddenly will not be found in earthquake or fire but only as a gentle breeze coaxes Elijah from his funk—he can only speak of what he has done for his divine patron.
I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:10 NRSV)
Solitude has become neurosis. Neurosis has clouded Elijah’s vision and become a self-fulfilling obsession.
Our sympathy with the man should persist.
YHWH has not made his counsel known to his prophet, at least not as fully as Elijah might feel he has become entitled to share it. There is in Elijah’s anguished retort a touch of disappointment in YHWH himself. Elijah feels used, unprotected, and vulnerable.
YHWH, gently but firmly, sends his man back to civilization, but not before piercing the thick cloud of neurotic exhaustion. It is not true that Elijah has become his Lord’s final spokesman. That is not Elijah’s best perception speaking. It is the voice of utter depletion. YHWH counters its subtle lie.
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. (1 Kings 19:18 NRSV)
The battle for the soul of Israel continues. Elijah, no matter what his role has for the moment robbed him of, must be there.
Seven thousand Israelites have not been on the mountain of contest with Elijah, but rather living their ordinary lives far from fire and quake, a soft breeze at their backs.
Elijah must join them.