Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” -1 Kings 17:1
This verse is literally all of the background information the Bible gives us on Elijah. He just shows up on the scene and pronounces judgment on the nation of Israel, which has fallen into idol worship following the lead of a line of wicked, idolatrous kings. 2 Kings 1:8 tells us that he was a hairy man and he “wore a leather girdle around his loins” (apparently he was making quite the fashion statement!). We know very little about Elijah. Out of no where he shows up before the King of Israel and proclaims that God would withhold rain indefinitely from the nation of Israel, which had followed their king, Ahab, blindly into deep-seeded idolatry.
Begging with Jeroboam who rebells against the rightful Davidic king Rehoboam, each of the kings of Israel (the northern tribes: i.e. every tribe minus Judah and Benjamin, which composed the southern nation of Judah) fell deeper and deeper into idolatry. In an attempt to unify the nation of Israel and keep them from going back to Jerusalem (in the Southern kingdom of Judah) to worship, Jeroboam set up two temples of worship for the Northern nation of Israel to worship. One was in Dan and the other was in Beersheba, on oppositie sides of the kingdom. Jeroboam placed golden calves for the Israelites worship in each in temple.
Seriously. Golden calves! Golden calves ring a bell? Seems great sins have a tendency to repeat themselves.
Anyway, Jeroboam’s idolatry started a chain reaction in which each subsequent king of Israel outdoes his predecessor in idol worship. Each of Israel’s kings continue in the sins of Jeroboam until we get to Ahab, who, perhaps more than any other king in the history of the nation of Israel, firmly establishes the practice of Baal (false god of the Canaanites) worship in Israel. 1 Kings 16:31 tells us that Ahab considered it a “trivial” thing to walk in the sins of Jeroboam and so he married the Daughter of the King of Sidon, Ethbaal, who was a fervent Baal worshiper. Through the influence of his pagan bride, Ahab not only allowed for the greater influx of idol worship but actually took significant steps to establish the regular practice of idol worship. Ahab built a temple and an altar to Baal in Samaria (16:32) and coupled it with an Ashera poll (a lewd poll at which people would worship the fertility god Asher). Ahab “sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 21:25) and “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33).
Thus when Elijah shows up, he does so out of zeal for the Lord (1 Kings 19:10, 14) and by the Lord’s command as His prophet. The nation of Israel has not seen a prophet for sometime, which was in itself a sign of God’s judgment (Ps. 74:9; 1 Samuel 3:1) and Elijah shows up before a king who had just taken great pains to establish Baal worship in Israel. And he stand before this king and says “as the LORD lives,” it will not rain these years “except by my word.” And of course, we know that as a prophet, Elijah meant that the LORD would withhold rain until He sees fit to give it again to Israel. It is also worth noting that LORD in all-capitol letters in our English Bibles is the translation of the divine name of God–Yaweh–“I am,” the one true and living God.
At the point at which Elijah pronounces this judgment, the drought had likely been going on for at least 6 months (compare James 5:17 and Luke 4:25 with 1 Kings 18:1). Elijah’s pronouncement was not conditioned upon Elijah’s word. God had inaugurated this period of judgment prior to Elijah’s pronouncement to Ahab. Elijah’s words merely serve to make clear that this judgement was from the LORD and that it would continue indefinitely until the He sees fit to end it because He is God and not Baal!
There were many “baals” that pagans would worship in Elijah’s day–each was thought to be “god” over a specific land or region. The “baal” that Ahab and subsequently Israel worshipped was probably Baal-Melchor. These “baals” were typically storm gods. Certainly Ahab’s Baal was such a god to which the people would pray for early and late rains in order to provide water for the harvest. Interestingly enough, Elijah confronts Ahab and claims that that which he looked to Baal to provide, namely rain, God would sovereignly withhold. You see God was not merely judging Israel by withholding rain from them, but he was proclaiming His power over that which Baal had failed to provide. He was showing that He is God not only over Israel but over the clouds, the sky, and the harvest. Furthermore, the LORD would prove his power over a region over which a false god was claimed to reign. Thus in Elijah’s pronouncement, God was claiming lordship over all regions, nature, and even life itself as a lack of rain would result in famine and death. This judgment would remain in effect until Gods send Elijah to prove to Israel that Yaweh is the one true God in dramatic fashion on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18.
The LORD, Yahweh, He is God! There is no one like Him. Elijah came bearing that message, he came to proclaim the glory of the Lord. Indeed, if you find yourself doubting that fact–that the LORD is God, then it is quite possible that you are “limping” between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21)–choose this day whom you will serve.
The Lord protects, provides for, and even conquers death for His people–we will see that in the coming verses and chapters of 1 Kings. For now it is worth noting that God is glorious beyond compare and He will prove to the nations that He is God. How blessed we are to personally and joyfully call Him Lord and Father!