Elijah Blew It (T4G 2012)

This week, my wife and I attended the T4G (Together for the Gospel) conference in Louisville, KY from Apr 10-12. 7,000+ attended with the majority age group being men in their 20s and 30s. T4G started in 2006 when 4 long-time pastor friends joined together to encourage other pastors to stand together for the same gospel. It was repeated in 2008, 2010 and this year. The 9 excellent plenary sermons are available on video or audio. Rather than review the conference, I am sharing my reflections on the sermon that most touched me. It is by Ligon Duncan based on 1 Kings 19:1-18: God’s Ruthless, Compassionate Grace in the Pursuit of His Own Glory and His Ministers’ Joy (transcribed here). I retitled it “Elijah Blew It.”

Briefly, Elijah destroyed 450 prophets of Baal (1 Ki 18:16-40). He experienced a great spiritual victory. The next day Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him. He fled for his life. God gently restored him. God spoke through a soft whisper, not through the whirlwind, earthquake or fire. Elijah despaired that he was the only one of the prophets left. God assured him that He had 7,000 remnants who had not bowed their knee to Baal. Despite Elijah’s despair God would fulfill his redemptive plan. This was how I remembered the lesson from this text.

When I heard Duncan’s sermon, I was surprised at what I had not realized about this narrative, about Elijah and about God. I did not realize Elijah’s failure at the close of his glorious ministry, Elijah’s idolatry, and God’s gracious dealing with him.

1. Elijah’s Fear is Unbelief (1 Ki 19:1-3)

In fear, Elijah ran for his life (1 Ki 19:1). I assumed this was “reasonable,” since he was exhausted, he experienced a let down, and he was threatened by a powerful godless queen (1 Ki 19:2). But he had just experienced the almighty supernatural power of God and killed 450 false prophets. Yet the very next day, he did not believe in the Almighty God he had just proclaimed, and ran for his life (1 Ki 19:3). As a result God asked him twice, What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki 19:9,13) Clearly God was not pleased with Elijah. What caused Elijah’s unbelief?

2. Elijah’s Unbelief is Rooted in His Idolatry (1 Ki 19:10,14)

What? How could this be? I had never thought that Elijah, a truly great prophet of God, could ever succumb to idolatry. Elijah had boldly preached against his nation’s idolatry throughout his ministry. How could he have given in to the idolatry he preached against? Elijah had 1 single desire as God’s prophet: To see his nation worship God, not idols. When he experienced the spectacular destruction of Baal worship, he expected his nation to turn back to God. But they continued to reject God’s covenant, tear down God’s alters, and kill God’s prophets (1 Ki 19:10,14), and Queen Jezebel promised to kill him. His treasure was not in God, but in what he had hoped God would do. This is noble. It is also idolatry.

3. Elijah Refused to See God’s Glory (1 Ki 19:11-13)

I had not noticed this before. When God asked Elijah to to go out from the cave he was in and stand on the mountain (1 Ki 19:11), he did not do so even though there was a whirlwind, earthquake and fire. Only when God spoke in a gentle whisper, did Elijah go out, and then with a cloak over his face (1 Ki 19:13). He apparently was so discouraged and disappointed that he could not bear to behold God’s glory.

4. God Retired Elijah, yet God was Gracious

I also had not realized the depth of God’s grace and goodness toward Elijah when I read and studied this passage in the past. Elijah’s disappointment exposed his idolatry of expecting a great spiritual revival through his ministry. But God wanted to give Elijah something better: Himself. Elijah fled and wished that he would die. God then shelved him. The only ministry left for him for the rest of his life was to prepare the way for his successor Elisha to do the job (1 Ki 19:15-16). Elijah’s ministry was essentially over. It didn’t end well for him. Elijah has all but had his day. God retired Elijah, as God had refused Moses entry into the promised land after 40 years of hard service when he was at the very edge of the promised land. God dealt with his chosen servants relentlessly and “harshly,” not to hurt them, but to give them the very best gift of Himself (Gen 15:1).

Despite Elijah’s failure and his refusal to see God’s glory on the mountain, God took him up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Ki 2:11). It gets better. Centuries later, God sent Elijah up a mountain again. What did God want Elijah to see? The glorious transfigured image of Jesus (Lk 9:29-30). God wanted Elijah to behold “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Does it all make sense now? What is the lesson for us?

It is a costly and brutal lesson. God ruthlessly and emphatically pursued Elijah’s fundamental idolatry and ripped it from his heart and crushed it. God was essentially saying, “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.”

My personal testimony is this: I need Jesus only, not Jesus plus a glorious fruitful discipleship ministry, which can so easily become an idolatry to me. Yet, despite all my sins and idolatry, God is gracious to relentlessly pursue me, in spite of me. This is the gospel of God’s grace. Perhaps, I’ve stirred your curiosity enough to listen to this glorious sermon.

Have you thought of 1 Kings 19:1-18 in this way before? Do you agree? Is not idolatry at the very root of our sin (Ex 20:3-4), even for the very best of God’s prophets?


  1. Ben, thank you for this encouraging article.

    I have to admit that i have never studied the life of Elijah in depth. But since my childhood, since the time i heard about Elijah in children’s bibles and Sunday classes he certainly became one of my heroes of faith. The perspective that his ministry was objectively seen a failure, is entirely new to me.
    But you are right: in terms of what he accomplished, he only had one glorious day. But what a powerful one day, indeed!

    You are absolutely right in saying that Jesus is the ultimate value and worth. Once we have him, there is nothing else we need. And yet, this is so painfully difficult to practice. I guess that there is always a strong sense of wanting to accomplish something in order to feel worthy. The motives and intentions, which are intermingling with the desire to feel good about oneself, can be good and noble (helping people come to Christ). But ultimately, i want to accomplish something to feel better about myself. I want to be able to look at my life and see lasting fruit: people who have come to Christ through me. This is idolatry indeed. 

    During my past years here in the U.S., i didn’t really have any “bible students” due to a variety of reasons. As weird as this may sound, maybe the past years have been such a great experience to me precisely because of this. Instead, i want this time to be an opportunity to come closer to Jesus. I am still struggling to not feel less worthy or less useful but to enjoy the pleasure of just focusing on the essential: to be with Christ with whom i will spend eternity.

    • Birgit (Heidelberg)

      Henoch, hurry and come to our Spring Conference on Elijah! ;-)

  2. Thanks, Henoch, for sharing. Yeah, it is easy for that “glorious one day” of Elijah’s to become an idolatry. Experiencing God’s supernatural power through our feeble Christian life is surely a high equivalent to drugs. Then do I want that high (which is God’s grace and blessing) or do I want Jesus only without that high?
    Drawing closer to Jesus is surely the goal of every Christian (Phil 3:10, 12). When sanctification occurs, I believe that God, who is working in us, will spur us on to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13).

  3. Tim Fitch

    I listened to Ligon Duncan’s sermon and it was indeed an excellent sermon! When he was reading the passage, I could have sworn that he was actually delivering his  sermon.
    The only part that I don’t know if I agree with 100% is that God decided to  “shelf”/retire Elijah because of his idolatry. If that’s the case, would God not have retired him before Elijah even destroyed the 450 prophets of Baal?  The sin of idolatry is always there in our hearts.
    But I do agree 100% that Elijah had an idolatry after what he did to Baal’s prophets.  It would be really hard not to. But did God decide to retire him because of this idolatry? Perhaps God already had in mind for  Elisha to be his successor way before this event even happened so that Elijah could see that God himself is the best gift ever?

    Also, I really enjoyed how Ligon Duncan pointed this passage to the gospel – Where Elijah failed with his sin of idolatry, Jesus succeeded when he himself was tempted with idolatry but overcame when he said, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42) 
    Thanks for sharing

  4. Thanks, Tim. When I heard him read the Scripture, I thought it was the “best” Scripture reading I have ever heard or experienced. His reading was riveting.

    Regarding God deciding to ”shelf”/retire Elijah because of his idolatry” — it is an interesting comment. My thoughts are that surely God, who is sovereign and omniscient, knows all things, including how the future will play out. Based on the narrative, however, God was clearly displeased with Elijah, asking him twice, “What are you doing here Elijah?” So I think it is a reasonable interpretation of the narrative.