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When Fires Fail

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Let sense be numb, let flesh retire; Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!  —J. G. Whittier, “The Brewing of Soma” (1872)

It is the inward man that must be reached, and he can only be reached by the power of the Word of God, energized by the Holy Spirit.  —C. W. Powell, Jr., A Basket of Figs (1994)

Politically incorrect Elijah kills the prophets of Baal.

From Triumph to Despair

The fire fell from heaven.  It devoured the sacrifice, the altar, and the water in the trench around it (1 Kings 18).  The crowd who witnessed cried out, “Yahweh is the God!  Yahweh is the God!”  Elijah told the people to corral the prophets of Baal.  They did, and Elijah executed every one of them.  Then Elijah prayed for rain.  He prayed seven times, and the rain came.  And then, in the power of God’s Spirit, Elijah ran before the king’s chariot all the way back to the palace at Jezreel.  It seemed that Israel was finally ready to renounce Baal and return to Yahweh in true faith.  Even wicked king Ahab seemed a bit intimidated before the tide of public opinion.  The revival had come.

But then a message from queen Jezebel turned everything upside down (1 Kings 19).  It said in effect, “By tomorrow, you’ll be dead.”  Elijah got up and ran.  He fled south out of Israel.  He fled all the way through the southern kingdom of Judah.  He went on into the wilderness a day’s journey.  There he flopped down in exhaustion under a juniper tree and asked God to take his life.

God didn’t grant his request.  Instead, He gave him food and sleep and sent him on his way.  After forty days and forty nights Elijah came to Mt. Horeb—Mt. Sinai, that is.  In fact, he came to the very cave where God had revealed Himself to Moses centuries before (Ex. 33:32ff).  There God met him, and asked rhetorically, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah had a thoroughly rehearsed speech ready:  “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (19:10).

Wind, Earthquake, Fire

God told Elijah to leave the cave and stand on the mountain.  Elijah obeyed.  And as he stood there, a “great and strong wind” tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces (v. 11).  But, Scripture says, “Yahweh was not in the wind.”  Then came a mighty earthquake, but “Yahweh was not in the earthquake.”  And after the earthquake, a fire.  “But Yahweh was not in the fire.”  Finally, there came “a still, small voice” (v. 12).  When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his mantle, humbled and awed by the presence of the Lord.

And God said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah repeated his rehearsed speech (v. 14), but God ignored it again.  “Go your way,” He said.  And Yahweh gave His prophet three specific tasks.  He was to anoint the next king of Syria, the next king of Israel, and finally appoint Elisha to be his replacement (vv. 15-16).  Finally, God told Elijah, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (18).  God hadn’t lost control of Israel or the nations, and Elijah wasn’t as alone as he thought.

The Thunderings of Sinai

Wind, earthquake, and fire.  These were the same three natural phenomena that accompanied the descent of the glory cloud upon Mt. Sinai when God came to deliver His law (Ex. 19:16ff; Heb. 12:18).  Israel had been properly frightened.  They besought Moses to act as mediator, to go meet with God so they wouldn’t have to.  But later, when Moses went into the mountain to receive the tables of the law, and while the thunder and tempest still raged over the mountaintop, Israel fell down and worshipped a golden calf.

External phenomena, no matter how powerful or spectacular, have decided spiritual limitations.  They never change human hearts.  This is what Elijah needed to learn.  So fire had come from heaven, and the crowds had cheered.  It meant nothing.  Crowds cheer the spectacular and applaud the amazing.  They pay money to be overwhelmed by special effects.  But none of this penetrates the heart and soul.  Only the word of God can do that, and only at the divine Spirit’s discretion (John 3:3-8).

God was still sovereign in history, but the course He had set for Israel wouldn’t be a mass revival, but through blood, slaughter, and political upheaval.  God was going to enforce the negative sanctions of His covenant law (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).  And through it all, God would preserve a remnant.  Through it all, God would accomplish His purposes in redemptive history.

Some Applications for the 21st Century

Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism insist that man’s will is unfallen, that man is quite capable of choosing the good if he is properly informed, excited, or persuaded.  In such a perspective, the task of the evangelist or apologist is to address the man in a persuasive manner so that he will make the right choice.  It’s assumed that God will help somehow, but of course, without ever violating the subject’s free will.

In America’s history, we have seen evangelists appeal to the spectacular, the emotional, and the downright weird.  We have seen apologists appeal, more soberly and rationally, to the evidence of history, archaeology, and science.  But in both cases, these men, often sound in other respects, have missed the lesson of Elijah.  Externals never reach the heart.  Not spectacles.  Not miracles.  Not scientific evidence or even logical arguments.  Pelagianism to the contrary, man is in fact, dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1), and nothing merely external can raise him to resurrection life.

Effectual evangelism and apologetics, true revival, spiritual growth, and real sanctification all depend upon the invisible and often subtle work of the Spirit of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  When we rely on any other mechanism, device, or method, we deny the cross, the Spirit, and the Savior.

In saying this, we must also include human rules and laws, and even the improper use of God’s own laws.  The wind, earthquake, and fire pointed directly to God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai.  That covenant in and of itself couldn’t save sinners.  It couldn’t regenerate; it couldn’t give life.  Only as a promise of Christ wrapped in shadow and type, only as a preaching of the Messiah yet to come, was it effective to salvation.  In plain words, the law of God never saved anyone (Gal. 2:21; Rom. 3).  The law of God never produced spiritual power or resurrection life (Gal. 3:2ff).  It didn’t and it can’t.  And if this is true of God’s own holy and just law, how much more is it true of merely human laws moralisms and freak shows?  How much more is it true of liberal, socialist legislation?


God uses natural phenomenon. He demonstrates his power with wind and earthquake and fire.  But He’s present in a very different way in the preaching of His word.  He is present in a very different way in the gospel.  God’s negative sanctions are often far more spectacular than His positive sanctions.  Disaster, plague, war—God uses these to not only destroy His outright enemies, but to sift through apostate covenant members.  But spiritual life is in Christ.  Only the gospel changes hearts, minds, and civilizations.  If spectacle natural phenomena or nanny state legislation could do it, then Christ died in vain. A pretty sad thought indeed.

For Further Reading:

Gary North, “Elijah’s Job,” Biblical Economics Today Vol. XIX, No. 4 (June/July 1997).

Jerrold H. Lewis, “Wind, Earthquake, and Fire,” Puritan Board (Jan 2003) <>.

C. W. Powell, Jr., “Building Character? or Grinding a Fool?” in A Nail in a Sure Place, Biblical Proverbs for Anyone Who Teaches (Colorado Springs:  Fig Publishing, 1994).

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