“What Are You Doing Here?”

(1 Kings 19:9-18 – September 6, 2020)

1 Kings 19:9-18 – 9And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10So he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” 11Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14And he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” 15Then the LORD said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. 17It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Dear Redeemed in Christ Jesus our Savior,

We can all understand Elijah’s discouragement to some extent. We have had that experience where, after we have done all the right things, still it seemed everything was going wrong. Put yourself in Elijah’s place. He had done all the right things as God’s prophet. He had confronted Israel’s wicked idolatry, calling them to repent. He had gone to King Ahab and announced as God’s judgment that there would be drought and famine in the land the next few years. Later, Elijah had challenged hundreds of prophets of Baal to a trial by fire to prove whose God was real. After the false prophets prayed in vain for Baal to rain fire on their sacrifice, Elijah prayed to God and fire from heaven consumed both his sacrifice and the altar. At this, the Israelites had said: “The Lord, He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39). That was a high point in Elijah’s ministry. God’s Word clearly had been effective. It seemed that now the king and people would turn to the true God.

But no reform came. King Ahab did not repent. The ruthless Queen Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah. It is at this time all-time low that we find Elijah wandering in the wilderness. Afraid, he had run for his life. Depressed, he had prayed: “It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). Discouraged, he was ready to hang up the prophet’s mantle and live the life of a recluse. Presently, he found himself hiding in a cave, all alone with his thoughts, feeling like an utterly worthless failure. That is when the Word of the Lord came to him: “What Are You Doing Here?” It was 1) A question to search the heart of the discouraged. It was 2) An encouragement to trust in the Lord’s gracious plan.

1) A question to search the heart of the discouraged

The Lord knew Elijah needed encouragement, and He was there to help. But He began with a question to search the heart of the discouraged: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” By this question, God indicated that running away to a cave in the wilderness was not what He had in mind for His prophet. It was a question to lead Elijah to examine his motives for being there.

Elijah answered: “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” Elijah’s basic answer was: “Lord, You know I’ve tried to do all the right things. I preached Your Word faithfully. I even showed the people Your powerful signs. But what good has it done? Like all the other prophets, they want to kill me too!” Didn’t this justify his running away? Why should he go on in the Lord’s work?

The Lord could see that Elijah was overtaken with self pity, rather than trusting His help. So He asked that heart-searching question: “What are you doing here? Why are you hiding in this cave nursing your despair? Haven’t you just seen the powerful victory I gave over the prophets of Baal? Do you think I am now unable to deal with the death threat of your enemies? Aren’t you trusting that I’m working out My gracious plan in your life, as I have so many other times?”

Perhaps the place Elijah has run to gives a further hint about his mindset. He is at Mount Horeb, where 600 years earlier the Lord had given His Law to Moses for Israel. At that time, the Lord had appeared on this mountain fearfully, with thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and a loud trumpet blast, so that everyone in the camp below trembled (Exodus 19:16-19). Again on this mountain, at a low point in Moses’ ministry, when Israel had turned to idolatry, the Lord had given His prophet encouragement. The Lord had put Moses in a cleft in the rock as He passed by in His glory. Moses had been permitted to see the Lord’s back, but not His face (Exodus 33:21-23). Perhaps in coming to this mountain, Elijah was seeking the Lord to display His almighty power and glory in a similar way. Here where the Law had been given, Elijah hoped the Lord would vindicate him and carry out justice. He wanted the Lord to make sinful Israel tremble under the thundering threats of His Law and bring fiery judgment on them. In his discouragement, Elijah had given up hope of these people being saved. But the Lord asked that heart-searching question: “What are you doing here, Elijah? Are you letting the way others treat you shape how you serve Me? Are you letting the enemies of My Gospel drive you into hiding? Are you letting others’ attitudes hinder your love for these people whom I still want to save?” Are you letting those who despise My Word cause you to lose the joy of My salvation?

Certainly, Elijah’s life was one of the greatest examples of faithfulness to the Lord. Yet, while the Lord acted powerfully in many ways through this great prophet, Elijah was a man like us (James 5:17). He had his low points too. Just like Elijah, as God’s people there are times when we feel greatly discouraged. Maybe all we want is to get away from our problems, no matter what it takes. But sometimes the place we run to is not where the Lord would have us go.

Sometimes we feel discouraged in our daily calling. We try to do a good job, but no one seems to appreciate us. We have been passed over for raises and job promotions. We didn’t get the grades we thought we deserved. Maybe our daily duties are not the life we had dreamed of. Why should we keep trying? Perhaps we run to a sort of Mount Horeb in the wilderness. We hide ourselves in the cave of self pity. Sometimes it means we run for comfort to bad habits, like over-eating or over-drinking. The Lord asks that heart-searching question: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you trusting Me to lead you and carry out My gracious plan in your life?”

Sometimes we feel discouraged in our relationships. Maybe there are people who hurt and annoy us, as they did Elijah. No matter what you do, they find fault with you. Perhaps we run to a Mount Horeb. We hide in a cave of hurt, anger, and bitterness wishing vengeance on others. Sometimes it comes out in words and actions. The Lord asks that heart-searching question: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you trusting My help to forgive and love that person, and for your part to do what is right? ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21).”

Sometimes we feel discouraged in our Christian witness. We thought that by sharing God’s Word faithfully we would see results, but we don’t see people flocking to the Lord. We tried to restore a person who was living in sin gently by God’s Word, but instead of repenting they took offense at us. When we feel our Christian witness is ineffective, we are tempted to run to Mount Horeb. We hide ourselves in a cave of frustration and impatience. We are tempted to give up. The Lord asks that heart-searching question: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you trusting My Gospel as the power unto salvation, by which I will warm people’s hearts and change lives? Don’t let those who despise My Word cause you to lose the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ.”

How often, our own sins discourage us. We try to do the right things, yet we see our failures every day. Perhaps we run again to Mount Horeb. We try to hide ourselves in our own little austere cave, away from all the evils of the world. We think that on this mountain of the Law we can approach the Lord with our holy life and get a glimpse of His glory. But instead of finding glory, we find ourselves withdrawing further into the dark cave of guilt and despair. The Lord asks that heart-searching question: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you trusting My gracious Gospel promise in Christ, that I forgive all your sins and count you holy for His sake alone?

2) An encouragement to trust in the Lord’s gracious plan

How easy it is to become discouraged at many points in life, and to run away to where we think we can fix our problems. But so often where we run to is a place of self-pity, anger, and other unprofitable attitudes; a place of trying to solve things through the Law and vengeance. But that is not where we will find rest. When the Lord asks, “What are you doing here?” it is a question to search the heart; and it is also an encouragement to trust the Lord’s gracious plan.

The Lord would encourage us to run to His Gospel promises in Jesus Christ: “Run to the cross and empty tomb, and rest your soul there in My gracious Gospel promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.” In Christ alone, we know that God is for us, no matter who or what may be against us (Romans 8:31). In the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, we can cast all our cares and troubles upon the Lord, knowing He is caring for us (1 Peter 5:7). And here, we are in a good place to be.

On the mountain the Lord did show Elijah His glory, but in a pleasantly surprising way. “And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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 a still small voice.”

The Lord was not in the destructive wind, earthquake, or fire; He was in the still small voice. It was the Lord’s reminder to His discouraged prophet that it is not by the destructive judgment of His Law, but through the gentle whisper of His Gospel that He works His gracious plan in the lives of His people. This is also how the Lord had shown Himself to Moses on this mountain, when He passed before him proclaiming: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).

Like Elijah, we can be thankful that the Lord reveals Himself to us, not in His bare power and glory, but as the gentle God of grace. Otherwise, who of us sinners could live in His holy presence? We can be thankful that when the Lord came into this world, it was not in a destructive show of power to make us tremble with fear; it was in that gentle voice of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our Lord came as our brother in the flesh, tenderly inviting us: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Though He is the King of heaven, He rode into Jerusalem “lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Though He is Judge of all, He suffered judgment for us and died on the cross for our sins; then He rose again to give us eternal life. He continues to come and speak gently to us in Word and Sacrament, to reassure us of His forgiveness and salvation. He speaks gently to us in times of discouragement, to reassure us that He is still working His gracious plan in our lives.

“What are you doing here?” By this question the Lord reminded Elijah to trust His gracious plan. Here, Elijah thought he was the only believer left in Israel and that his ministry was so ineffective. But the Lord says: “Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Already, through the Word faithfully shared by Elijah and others, God had changed the hearts of thousands in Israel. Through the Law, they had been convicted of their sins and brought to repentance; and through the Gospel, they looked in faith to the Savior God promised, in whose name God forgives sins, delivers His people from their enemies, and gives eternal life. And so, by a still small voice, God reassured Elijah that He was not finished with His purpose in his life. He had the good news of the Gospel to share, that many more may come to believe and be saved.

When we find ourselves discouraged and we hear the Lord ask, “What are you doing here?” let us hear His gentle Word of encouragement that says: “Trust My gracious plan for you.” He is not finished with His purpose in our life. He is working everything according to His eternally wise and loving plan. He is working through our witness, day by day, where He has put us, to touch the lives of people in ways we may not realize. So let us go forth as Elijah did, to serve the Lord in confident trust. Let us share the good news of His salvation in Christ, the the good news of the Gospel, which declares sinners forgiven and restored to God in eternal life.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.