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404

CHAPTER XXXIX.

ELIJAH'S FLIGHT.

1 Kings xix. 1-4.

"A still small voice comes through the wild,

Like a father consoling his fretful child,

Which banisheth bitterness, wrath and fear,

Saying, 'Man is distant, but God is near.'"

Temple.

The misgiving which, joined to his ascetic dislike of cities, made Elijah stop his swift race at the entrance of Jezreel was more than justified. Ahab's narrative of the splendid contest at Carmel produced no effect upon Jezebel whatever, and we can imagine the bitter objurgations which she poured upon her cowering husband for having stood quietly by while her prophets and Baal's prophets were being massacred by this dark fanatic, aided by a rebellious people. Had she been there all should have been otherwise! In contemptuous defiance of Ahab's fears or wishes, she then and there—and it must now have been after nightfall—despatched a messenger to find Elijah, wherever he might be hiding himself, and say to him in her name: "As sure as thou art Elijah, and I am Jezebel,667667   LXX., 1 Kings xix. 2. may my gods avenge it upon me if on the morrow by this time I have not made thy life like the life of one of my own405 murdered priests." In the furious impetuosity of the message we see the determination of the sorceress-queen. In her way she was as much in deadly earnest as Elijah was. Whether Baal had been defeated or not, she was not defeated, and Elijah should not escape her vengeance. The oath shows the intensity of her rage, like that of the forty Jews who bound themselves by the cherem that they would not eat or drink till they had slain Paul; and the fixity of her purpose as when Richard III. declared that he would not dine till the head of Buckingham had fallen on the block. We cannot but notice the insignificance to which she reduced her husband, and the contempt with which she treated the voice of her people. She presents the spectacle, so often reproduced in history and reflected in literature, of a strong fierce woman—a Clytemnestra, a Brunhault, a Lady Macbeth, an Isabella of France, a Margaret of Anjou, a Joan of Naples, a Catherine de Medicis—completely dominating a feebler consort.

The burst of rage which led her to send the message defeated her own object. The awfulness which invested Elijah, and the supernatural powers on which he relied, when he was engaged in the battles of the Lord, belonged to him only in his public and prophetic capacity. As a man he was but a poor, feeble, lonely subject, whose blood might be shed at any moment. He knew that God works no miracles for the supersession of ordinary human precautions. It was no part of his duty to throw away his life, and give a counter triumph to the Baal-worshippers whom he had so signally humiliated. He fled, and went for his life.

Swift flight was easy to that hardy frame and that trained endurance, even after the fearful day on Carmel and the wild race of fifteen miles from Carmel to406 Jezreel. It was still night, and cool, and the haunts and byways of the land were known to the solitary and hunted wanderer. "He feared, and he rose, and he went for his life," ninety-five miles to Beersheba, once a town of Simeon, now the southern limit of the kingdom of Judah, thirty-one miles south of Hebron.668668   The touch "which belongeth to Judah" shows that the Elijah-narrative emanated from some prophet in the northern schools. In later days it was much visited by pilgrims from the Northern Kingdom (Amos v. 5, viii. 14). But in the tumult of his feelings and the peril of his position he could not stay in any town. At Beersheba he left his servant—perhaps, as legend says, the boy of Zarephath, who became the prophet Jonah—but, in any case, not so much a servant as a youth in training for the prophetic office. It was necessary for him to spend his dark hour alone; for, if there are hours in which human sympathy is all but indispensable, there are also hours in which the soul can tolerate no communion save that with God.669669   Matt. xxvi. 36. So, leaving all civilisation behind him, he plunged a day's journey into that great and terrible wilderness of Paran, where he too was alone with the wild beasts. And then, utterly worn out, he flung himself down under the woody stem of a solitary rhotem plant.670670   1 Kings xix. 4, 5, רֹתֶם אֵחָת; Vulg., subter unam juniperum. The plant is the Genista monosperma, with papilionaceous flowers. Not "juniper," as in Luther (Wachholder) and the A.V. LXX., ῥαθμὲν φύτον. See Robinson, Researches, i. 203, 205. It gave its name to the station Rithmah (Numb. xxxiii. 18) and the Wadies Retemît and Retâmah. The plant is the wild broom with "its cloud of pink blossoms" which often afford the only shadow under the glaring sun in the waste and weary land, and beneath the slight but grateful shade of which407 the Arab to this day is glad to pitch his tent. And there the pent-up emotions of his spirit, which had gone through so tremendous a strain, broke up as in one terrible sob, when the strong man, like a tired child, "requested for himself that he might die."671671   Comp. Moses (Numb. xi. 15), Jonah (Jonah iv. 3).

Of what use was life any longer? He had fought for Jehovah, and won, and after all been humiliatingly defeated. He had prophesied the drought, and it had withered and scorched up the erring, afflicted land. He had prayed for the rain, and it had come in a rush of blessing on the reviving fields. In the Wady Cherith, in the house of the Phœnician widow, he had been divinely supported and sheltered from hot pursuit. He had snatched her boy from death. He had stood before kings, and not been ashamed. He had stretched forth his hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, and not in vain. He had confounded the rich-vested and royally maintained band of Baal's priests, and in spite of their orgiastic leapings and self-mutilations had put to shame their Sun-god under his own burning sun. He had kept pace with Ahab's chariot-steeds as he conducted him, as it were in triumph, through the streaming downpour of that sweeping storm, to his summer capital. Of what use was it all? Was it anything but a splendid and deplorable failure? And he said: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers." He could have cried with the poet:—

"Let the heavens burst, and drown with deluging rain

The feeble vassals of lust, and anger, and wine,

The little hearts that know not how to forgive;

Arise, O God, and strike, for we count Thee just,—

We are not worthy to live."

Who does not know something of this feeling of utter408 overwhelming despondency, of bitter disillusionment concerning life and our fellow-men? Some great writer has said, with truth, "that there is probably no man with a soul above that of the brutes that perish, to whom a time has not come in his life, when, were you to tell him that he would not wake to see another day, he would receive the message with something like gladness." There are some whose lives have been so saddened by some special calamity that for long years together they have not valued them. F. W. Robertson, troubled by various sorrows, and worried (as the best men are sure to be) by the petty ecclesiastical persecutions of priests and formalists, wrote in a letter on a friend's death: "How often have I thought of the evening when he left Tours, when, in our boyish friendship, we set our little silver watches exactly together, and made a compact to look at the moon exactly at the same moment that night and think of each other. I do not remember a single hour in life since then which I would have arrested, and said, 'Let this stay.'" Melancholy so deep as this is morbid and unnatural, and he himself wrote in a brighter mood: "Positively I will not walk with any one in these tenebrous avenues of cypress and yew. I like sunny rooms and sunny truth. When I had more of spring and warmth I could afford to be prodigal of happiness; but now I want sunlight and sunshine. I desire to enter into those regions where cheerfulness and truth and health of heart and mind reside." Life has its real happiness for those who have deserved, and taken the right method to attain it; but it can never escape its hours of impenetrable gloom, and they sometimes seem to be darkest for the noblest souls. Petty souls are irritated by little annoyances, and the purely selfish409 disappointments which avenge the exaggerated claims of our "shivering egotism." But while little mean spirits are tormented by the insect-swarm of little mean worries, great souls are liable to be beaten down by the waves and storms of immense calamities—the calamities which affect nations and churches, the "desperate currents" of whose sins and miseries seem to be sometimes driven through the channels of their single hearts. Only such a man as an Elijah can measure the colossal despondency of an Elijah's heart. In the apparently absolute failure, the seemingly final frustration of such men as these there is something nobler than in the highest personal exaltations of ignobler souls.

"Now, O Lord, take away my life!" The prayer, however natural, however excusable, is never right. It is a sign of insufficient faith, of human imperfection; but it is breathed by different persons in a spirit so different that in some it almost rises to nobleness, as in others it sinks quite beneath contempt.

Scripture gives us several specimens of both moods. If Jonah was, indeed, the servant-pupil of Elijah, the legendary story of that meanest-minded of all the prophets—the meanest-minded and paltriest, not perhaps as he was in reality—for of him, historically, we know scarcely anything—but as he is represented in the profound and noble allegory which bears his name—might almost seem to have been written in tacit antithesis to the story of Elijah. Elijah flies only when he has done the mighty work of God, and only when the life is in deadly peril which he would fain save for future emergencies of service; Jonah flies that he may escape, out of timid selfishness, the work of God. Elijah wishes himself dead because he thinks that the glorious purpose of his life has been thwarted, and that the effort undertaken410 for the deliverance of his people has failed; Jonah wishes himself dead, first, because he repines at God's mercy, and would prefer that his personal credit should be saved and his personal importance secured than that God should spare the mighty city of Nineveh with its one hundred and twenty thousand little children; and then because the poor little castor-oil plant has withered, which gave him shelter from the noon. Considering the traditional connexion between them, it seems to me impossible to overlook an allusive contrast between the noble and mighty Elijah under his solitary rhotem plant in the wilderness wishing for death in the anguish of a heart "which nobly loathing strongly broke," and the selfish splenetic Jonah wishing himself dead in pettish vexation under his palma Christi because Nineveh is forgiven and the sun is hot.

There are indeed times when humanity is tried beyond its capacity, when the cry for restful death is wrung from souls crushed under accumulations of quite intolerable anguish and calamity. In the fret of long-continued sleeplessness, in sick and desolate and half-starved age, in attacks of disease incurable, long-continued, and full of torture, God will surely look with pardoning tenderness on those whose faith is unequal to so terrible a strain. It was pardonable surely of Job to curse the day of his birth when—smitten with elephantiasis, a horror, a hissing, an astonishment, bereaved of all his children, and vexed by the obtrusive orthodoxies of his petty Pharisaic friends; unconscious, too, that it was God's hand which was all the while leading him through the valley of the shadow into the land of righteousness—he cried: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?" In those who have411 no hope and are without God in the world, this mood—not when expressed in passing passion as by the saintly man of Uz, but when brooded on and indulged—leads to suicide, and in the one instance recorded in each Testament, an Ahithophel and a Judas, the despairing souls of the guilty:—

"Into the presence of their God

Rushed in with insult rude."

But Elijah's mood, little as it was justifiable in this its extreme form, was but the last infirmity of a noble mind. It has often recurred among those grandest of the servants of God who may sink into the deepest dejection from contrast with the spiritual altitudes to which they have soared. It is with them as with the lark which floods the blue air with its passion of almost delirious rapture, yet suddenly, as though exhausted, drops down silent into its lowly nest in the brown furrows. There is but one man in the Old Testament who, as a prophet, stands on the same level as Elijah,—he who stood with Elijah on the snowy heights of Hermon when their Lord was transfigured into celestial brightness, and they spake together of His decease at Jerusalem. And Moses had passed through the same dark hour as that through which Elijah was passing now, when he saw the tears, and heard the murmurs of the greedy, selfish, ungrateful people, who hated their heavenly manna, and lusted for the leeks and fleshpots of their Egyptian bondage. Revolted by this obtrusion upon him of human nature in its lowest meanness, he cried to God under his intolerable burden: "Have I conceived all this people?... I am not able to bear all this people alone.... And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand; and let me412 not see my wretchedness." In Moses, as doubtless in Elijah, so far from being the clamour of whining selfishness, his anguish was part of the same mood which made him offer his life for the redemption of the people; which made St. Paul ready to wish himself anathema from Jesus Christ if thereby he could save his brethren after the flesh. Danton rose into heroism when he exclaimed, "Que mon nom soit flétri, pourvu que la France soit libre"; and Whitefield, when he cried, "Perish George Whitefield, so God's work be done"; and the Duke of Wellington when—remonstrated with for joining in the last charge at Waterloo, with the shot whistling round his head—he said, "Never mind; the victory is won, and now my life is of no consequence." In great souls the thought of others, completely dominating the base man's concentration in self, may create a despondency which makes them ready to give up their life, not because it is a burden to themselves, but because it seems to them as if their work was over, and it was beyond their power to do more for others.

Tender natures as well as strong natures are liable to this inrush of hopelessness; and if it sometimes kills them by its violence, this is only a part of God's training of them into perfection.

"So unaffected, so composed a mind,

So firm, yet soft, so strong, yet so refined,

Heaven, as its purest gold, by tortures tried:—

The saint sustained it, but the woman died."!672672   Pope's epitaph on Mrs. Elizabeth Corbet, in St. Margaret's Westminster.

The cherubim of the sanctuary had to be made of the gold of Uphaz, the finest and purest gold. It was only the purest gold which could be tortured by workmanship413 into forms of exquisite beauty. The mind of Jeremiah was as unlike that of Elijah's as can possibly be conceived. He was a man of shrinking and delicate temperament, and his life is the most pathetic tragedy among the biographies of Scripture. The mind of Elijah, like those of Dante or Luther or Milton, was all ardour and battle brunt; the mind of Jeremiah, like that of Melancthon, was timid as that of a gentle boy. A man like Dante or Milton, when he stands alone, hated by princes and priests and people, retorts scorn for scorn, and refuses to change his voice to hoarse or mute. Yet even Dante died of a broken heart, and in Milton's mighty autobiographical wail of Samson Agonistes, amid all its trumpet-blast of stern defiance, we read the sad notes:—

"Nor am I in the list of them that hope;

Hopeless all my evils, all remediless;

This one prayer yet remains, might I be heard,

No long petition, speedy death,

The close of all my miseries, and the balm."

When the insolent priest Pashur smote Jeremiah in the face, and put him for a night and a day in the common stocks, the prophet—after telling Pashur that, for this awful insult to God's messenger, his name, which meant "joy far and wide," should be changed into Magormissa-bib, "terror on every side"—utterly broke down, and passionately cursed the day of his birth.673673   Jer. xx. 1-18. And yet his trials were very far from ended then. Homeless, wifeless, childless, slandered, intrigued against, undermined—protesting apparently in vain against the hollow shams of a self-vaunting reformation—the object of special hatred to all the self-satisfied religionists of his day, the lonely persecuted servant of the Lord414 ended only in exile and martyrdom the long trouble of his eternally blessed but seemingly unfruitful life.

I dwell on this incident in the life of Elijah because it is full of instructiveness. Scripture is not all on a dead level. There are many pages of it which belong indeed to the connected history, and therefore carry on the general lessons of the history, but which are, in themselves, almost empty of any spiritual profit. Only a fantastic and artificial method of sermonising can extract from them, taken alone, any Divine lessons. In these Books of Kings many of the records are simply historical, and in themselves, apart from their place in the whole, have no more religious significance than any other historic facts; but because these annals are the annals of a chosen people, and because these books are written for our learning, we find in them again and again, and particularly in their more connected and elevated narratives, facts and incidents which place Scripture incomparably above all secular literature, and are rich in eternal truth for all time, and for a life beyond life.

It is with such an experience that we are dealing here, and therefore it is worth while, if we can, to see something of its meaning. We may, therefore, be permitted to linger for a brief space over the causes of Elijah's despair, and the method in which God dealt with it.


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