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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?” 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.” 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. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave… 1Ki 19:9-13a

Elijah was a prophet that God had used to accomplish awesome works among the people of Israel. God speaks to him and directs his paths, and Elijah has done what the LORD commanded of him. Yet, at this point he finds himself despairing and discouraged at the results. He has just come off a great victory over the worshippers of Baal. Through the power of God, he has made a public spectacle of their idolatry, demonstrating to one and all that the LORD alone is God (1Ki 18:21-40). However, when King Ahab’s wife Jezebel finds out about this, she swears that she will have him killed. So Elijah flees into the wilderness and pleads for God to just put him out of his misery, but God preserves him and provides him the strength to make it to Mount Horeb after 40 days (1Ki 19:1-8). His pleading is reminiscent of Moses’ despair with the people of Israel (Num 11:15), and Jonah’s despair after Nineveh’s repentance (Jon 4:3). It is here that Elijah expresses his despair, and God answers him.

What follows is a peculiar repetition, with the wind, earthquake, fire, and the small voice followed by:

… And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.” 1Ki 19:13b-18

In his Old Testament Theology, Bruce Waltke points out a significant pattern in this repetition:

A – “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
  B – “I only am left”
    C – “Go”
      D – Wind
        E – Earthquake
          F – Fire
      D – God was not in the wind
        E – God was not in the earthquake
          F – God was not in the fire
            G– Low whisper

A – “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
  B – “I only am left”
    C – “Go”
      D – Anoint Hazael
        E – Anoint Jehu
          F – Anoint Elisha
      D – Sword of Hazael
        E – Sword of Jehu
           F – Sword of Elisha
             G – Remnant of 7000

I would add to this following pattern stemming from Elijah’s complaint:

A – They have forsaken your covenant
  B – They have thrown down your altars
    C – They have killed your prophets
      D – I am the only one left
A – Wind
  B – Earthquake
    C – Fire
      D – Low whisper
A – Anoint Hazael
  B – Anoint Jehu
    C – Anoint Elisha
      D – Remnant of 7000

By comparing the two passages, we see the significance of God’s answer to Elijah. The people have forsaken the covenant, thrown down the altars, and killed the prophets. All of the things Elijah has done appear to have amounted to nothing. It appears as though the word of God has failed. However, God promises that, indeed, judgment will come upon the house of Israel, with the king of Syria bringing defeat to the covenant-breaking nation, Jehu defeating the worshippers of Baal, and Elisha prophesying against the people. Most significantly, however, is that the real work of God is found in the preservation of the remnant of 7000 men who have not worshipped Baal.

Indeed, the word of God has not failed, but will accomplish what he has purposed for it (Isa 55:11). Elijah has lost heart because he has lost sight of God’s faithfulness, and in his eagerness to see dramatic results from his work, he misses the work of God in the “low whisper”

The apostle Paul learns from Elijah’s experience, and when faced with the Jews rejecting salvation through faith in their promised Messiah, he must answer the question, “Has the word of God failed?” (Rom 3:3; Rom 9:6) Have God promises for Israel come to nothing? Has he rejected his people?

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. Rom 11:1-5

Paul had gained the perspective which Elijah lacked. He learned that the gospel he preached, in so far as he preached it faithfully, was successful regardless of the apparent result (or lack thereof) (cf. 2Co 2:14-16; 2Co 4:1-6). He also learned that the afflictions he faced and the hardships he encountered were not an occasion for despair, but rather rejoicing (Rom 5:3-5). His apparent failures turn out to be God’s great victories, and through his weaknesses God is shown to be strong.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.  2Co 4:7-18 (also see 2Co 12:7-10)

This eternal perspective is the key to not losing heart. We, for whom these things were written (Rom 15:4), should take this to heart as well. Glorious eternal victories are being won through our failures, our weaknesses, our suffering, and our defeats. While we are busy looking at the wind, earthquake, and fire, let us not lose sight of God accomplishing the miraculous through the low whisper.

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. Heb 13:20-21