“Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD which had been torn down.” ~ 1 Kings 18:30
If you’ve ever read the books of the Kings you’ll know that there is a familiar pattern to the episodes. The story of the king of Judah is told until he dies, then the story of the king of Israel is told until he dies. If Israel’s king dies before the king of Judah, we get the story of the next king of Israel, and it continues until there is a transition in Judah. In this way the book of Kings performs a kind of chronological leapfrogging. Back and forth, largely in sequence, one king after another, two nations divided yet unified. It is a tragic book to read.
In the middle of the books of the kings (remember that 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings, are all part of one big book–1,2,3, and 4 Kings) we get the story of Elijah. This is an oddity, because of course Elijah isn’t a king. He doesn’t fit the pattern. He is an interlude stuffed in the middle of the stories of the kings. And this got me thinking.
What if Elijah, as a figure, has become the focus in the book of Kings in order to make a theological point? What if, more than just a story, Elijah is here to cast light on the broader picture of Israel’s apostasy? Israel, with a wicked king (Ahab), who has intermingled with the nations in an unholy way (Jezebel), and is worshipping false gods (the Baals/Asherim), experiences God’s displeasure in the land (drought prefiguring exile), and requires the intervention of God’s prophet (Elijah) to begin to reconcile God’s people back to God. What does that prophet do? He rebuilds God’s altar with twelve stones (a broken Israel, a broken worship), offers the sacrifice on Israel’s behalf, but–note this–God Himself brings the fire and causes the offering to be burnt. The implications seem clear to me–as with all works of Atonement, it is God Himself who makes amends.
We also are broken and divided, we also are apostate and disobedient. And more than anything else–more than our religious fervor or good thoughts–what we need is a fresh pouring out of God’s sanctifying, purifying fire.