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Spring 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 1 · pp. 33–43 

1 Kings 19: The Renewal of Elijah

Dan Epp-Tiessen

Even the most committed of God’s servants may at times experience discouragement, pessimism, and a desire to withdraw from their calling. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of how the mighty Elijah succumbed to human weakness, and how the remarkable grace of God renewed this once fearless prophet and restored him to his ministry.

Observing the chiastic structure of 1 Kings 19 brings into focus the various steps God uses to renew a weary, discouraged, and suicidal prophet.


Some commentators assert that 1 Kings 19 is a composite text containing awkward interpolations and repetitions. 1 The narrative may well be composite in nature, but in its final form it is a carefully crafted chiasm. Recognizing the structure of the text brings the purpose of the whole story into clearer focus and reveals the significance of some of its apparently awkward elements.

A.   19:1-4 Elijah flees from the world and prophetic ministry
    B.   19:5-9a Elijah’s renewal begins
  • instructions for Elijah: “arise and eat” 2
  • Yahweh responds to Elijah’s needs with food and {34} water, and a suggestion that he go to Horeb
  • on the strength of the food Elijah travels to Horeb
  •         C.   19:9b-10 “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
  • “I have been exceedingly zealous . . .”
  •             D.   19:11a Elijah is told “go out and stand”
                    E.   19:11b-12 Yahweh passes by
                D’.   19:13a Elijah goes out and stands
            C’.   19:13b-14 “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
  • “I have been exceedingly zealous . . .”
  •     B’.   19:15-18 Elijah’s renewal is completed
  • instructions for Elijah: “go and return”
  • Yahweh responds to Elijah’s needs with a new commission and reassurance
  • Yahweh tells Elijah to leave Horeb
  • A’.   19:19-21 Elijah returns to the world and to prophetic ministry

    The chiastic features are most obvious in sections C (19:9b-10) and C’ (19:13b-14) where God asks the same question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In response Elijah gives the identical lengthy self-justification regarding his own zeal in contrast to the apostasy of other Israelites. 3 In section D (19:11a) God orders Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain, and in D’ (19:13a) the same Hebrew words are used to report that Elijah does go out and stand. Sections B (19:5-9a) and B’ (19:15-18) both focus on how Elijah’s renewal is accomplished, while sections A (19:1-4) and A’ (19:19-21) contrast a fearful and burned-out prophet who flees from his ministry with a renewed prophet who returns to his calling. In chiastic passages the theologically most important material often stands in the center, and so it is not surprising that God arrives on the scene in the center of this story (19:11b-12).

    In a chiasm the parallels and contrasts between corresponding panels invite comparison and in the process a composite meaning sometimes emerges which might not be evident if the structure is not recognized. For example, in the first section (A) Elijah is so afraid and {35} discouraged that he flees from the world and his prophetic ministry and wishes to die. By the last section (A’) Elijah has been re-energized and has returned to the world and his ministry. Comparing these two sections reveals the enormous change which has come over Elijah, and indicates that the focus of the story is the renewal of a fearful and burned-out prophet. How God brings about this renewal is the concern of the intervening sections.

    A: Elijah Flees from His Prophetic Ministry (19:1-4)

    The story opens with a reference to the previous chapter where Elijah has bested and killed the prophets of Baal in the great contest on Mount Carmel. When Jezebel, the royal patron of the Baal prophets, hears of Elijah’s actions she dispatches a messenger to inform him that she will have his life (19:2). Elijah is persecuted for his faithfulness and for demanding total obedience to one God because such loyalty threatens the powers that be who have their own ideas about whom or what people should worship.

    Elijah’s response to this opposition is surprising. Previously he has not hesitated to stand up to King Ahab (17:1; 18:17-18) and to the prophets of Baal, but now he is fearful and flees to Beer-sheba, the southernmost settlement in Judah, well out of reach of Jezebel, queen of Northern Israel. In Beer-sheba he leaves his servant behind and travels an additional day’s journey into the desert. This is a suicide attempt, because no one can live long in the harsh wilderness south of Beer-sheba. Elijah lies down under a bush and asks God to take his life, claiming that he is no better than his fathers. “Fathers” is probably a reference to his prophetic predecessors, and so Elijah is bemoaning his discouragement at his lack of success in encouraging the Israelites to be faithful. Ironically, when Jezebel seeks Elijah’s life he will not surrender it to her, but then he flees into the desert and asks God to take it. The effect is to focus on the crisis which creates the tension in the narrative: Will Elijah continue to serve as God’s prophet or not? 4

    The contrast between the Elijah of ch. 19 and the Elijah of chs. 17-18 is often attributed to a combination of stories from once-independent sources. I suspect that the stories may originally have been independent, but I will interpret the final form of the text rather than conjectured earlier versions. Ch. 18 portrays an invincible prophet who fearlessly stands up to king and prophets alike, but the Elijah of ch. 19 is vulnerable and subject to discouragement and fear. Elijah despairs and gives up on his calling, but the next section of the story illustrates that God is not about to give up on him. {36}

    B: Elijah’s Renewal Begins (19:5-9a)

    Elijah lies down under a bush and falls asleep, illustrating his lack of vitality and his unwillingness or inability to continue his prophetic ministry. Out of the blue a messenger of Yahweh awakens him and tells him to eat and drink. Most translations call this messenger an angel, but the Hebrew term mal’āk more basically means messenger, and is the identical term used for the messenger whom Jezebel had sent to Elijah (19:2). Jezebel sends a messenger of death, but Yahweh sends a messenger of life who serves Elijah food and water, two essentials for survival in the harsh wilderness. 5 Elijah eats, drinks, but then falls asleep again, indicating that he has not yet recovered from his lethargy. The messenger rouses Elijah again and urges him to eat and drink, this time providing a reason, “or the journey will be too much for you” (19:7).

    Verse 8 begins with a series of verbs which indicate that Elijah’s vitality has begun to return. No longer does he sleep or seek death, but he rises, eats, drinks, and goes. On the strength of this single meal Elijah travels forty days and nights until he reaches Horeb. On the realistic level the trip to Horeb makes little sense. Elijah is tired and discouraged, so why make a lengthy trek through barren wilderness? Horeb is in some Old Testament traditions the name for Mount Sinai, the mountain associated with God’s appearance. Elijah is portrayed as a second Moses who makes a pilgrimage to Sinai where Moses received his initial call from God (Exod. 3:1). Forty days and nights in connection with Mount Sinai recalls the two sojourns of Moses on Sinai for forty days and nights (Exod. 24:18; 34:28). 6 Moreover, Mount Sinai is forever associated in Israelite tradition with covenant-making, God’s revelation of the Torah, and construction of the tabernacle, Yahweh’s earthly dwelling place.

    The point of the story is not just that Elijah makes a physical trip to Mount Sinai, for the meaning goes much deeper. Elijah is in crisis and wants to terminate both his prophetic ministry and his life. In an act of sheer grace God intervenes, provides the prophet with life-giving food and water, and suggests a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, the place that is forever associated with the source and essence of Israelite faith. This story calls out to those among God’s people who are worn-out, fearful, or in need of renewal. The story suggests a way forward—eat and drink of God’s life-giving sustenance, return to the bedrock of faith, listen for God’s still small voice. That may be the way to find new energy, new vision, and a new sense of purpose.

    C: I Have Been Zealous (19:9b-10)

    After Elijah arrives at Horeb and spends the night in a cave, {37} Yahweh demands to know, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:9b). The tone of the question and the fact that it is repeated later in the story suggest that the question is a reproach. 7 Prophets do not belong on an isolated mountaintop of divine apparitions and spiritual ecstasy, they belong in the world carrying out the work of God. The story is ambiguous about the trip to Horeb. On one hand it can hardly be inappropriate for a discouraged prophet to make a pilgrimage to the source and center of Israelite faith, especially when it is the divine messenger who suggests such a trip and provides the miraculous food and water necessary for the strenuous journey. Once at Horeb, God’s appearance and the giving of a new commission reenergize Elijah and restore him to his ministry. On the other hand, twice God asks the reproachful question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:9, 13), and each time the prophet responds by whining about the sad state of affairs in Israel and how the entire burden of Israel’s spiritual welfare rests on his shoulders.

    Perhaps there is theological significance to both sides of the ambiguity. God’s servants are called to make periodic pilgrimages to Horeb, the source of Israel’s faith, for spiritual renewal and to be reenergized for service in God’s reign. But ultimately God’s servants are not called to live on a mountaintop of spiritual ecstasy, close to God but far from the world. They belong in the world, doing the work of God amidst the affairs of daily life. Elijah’s renewal is not complete until he has obeyed God’s commission to leave Horeb and return to work.

    Eating the life-giving food earlier in the story marked the beginning of Elijah’s renewal, but his answer to God’s question illustrates that his renewal is still far from complete. Elijah complains, indulges in self-pity, and touts his own actions: “I have been exceedingly zealous for Yahweh God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek to take my life” (19:10). Elijah’s selective memory leads him to exaggerate the negative and to overlook his success in the previous chapter. 8 Israel’s worship of Baal certainly constituted a breaking of the covenant, but after God sends fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice and defeat Baal, the Israelites confess that Yahweh is God (18:39). Then it is the Baal prophets not Yahweh’s prophets who are slaughtered (18:40). Elijah declares that he is the only prophet of Yahweh left, but the previous chapter states twice that the faithful Obadiah had saved one hundred prophets of Yahweh from Jezebel’s persecution (18:4,13).

    The narrative demonstrates psychological insight by illustrating how burnout in ministry can lead to both pessimism about the life {38} of God’s people and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Elijah begins his response to God’s question with a tribute to his own efforts, contrasting his own zeal with the unfaithfulness of the Israelites. He seems to believe that everything depends on him, as he concludes by claiming that he is the only prophet of Yahweh left, and now his life is in jeopardy as well. 9

    D: Go Out and Stand (19:11a)

    In this section we expect God’s response to Elijah’s self-indulgent complaint, but none is forthcoming. It seems that God does not respond directly to exaggerated claims of self-importance, but merely instructs Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh. Placing oneself before God sometimes has a way on putting things in better perspective.

    E: Yahweh Passes By (19:11b-12)

    Yahweh passes by accompanied by fire, earthquake, and a wind so powerful that it shatters mountains and rocks. Here again are allusions to Moses and Exodus events. Moses experienced Yahweh passing by as he was shielded in the cleft of a rock (Exod. 33:17-34:7). Yahweh’s theophany at Sinai involved, among other features, earthquake (Exod. 19:18) and fire (Exod. 19:18; Deut. 5:22-26; 18:16). However, 1 Kings 19 states three times that Yahweh was not in any of these dramatic phenomena. Traditional theophanic elements are reduced to phenomena that merely get Elijah’s attention so that he will listen to the still quiet voice through which Yahweh speaks.

    The many translations of the expression “quiet, thin voice” indicate that we are not entirely certain what it means. The Hebrew word qôl means either “sound” or “voice,” and the first adjective used to describe the voice/sound (dĕmāmâ) denotes quietness, stillness, or even silence. The second modifier (daqqâ) means something that has been made fine or thin. The implication is that the voice/sound through which God speaks is barely audible, in stark contrast to the phenomena which precede the voice. Various dramatic phenomena, including fire from heaven, play a significant role in Elijah’s ministry (1 Kings 18:38; 2 Kings 1:10, 12, 14; 2:11), but 1 Kings 19 suggests that Elijah must also be open to communication from God that comes through simple and unexpected means. God’s presence in the stillness can be “just as real and powerful as [in] the cosmic forces of nature.” 10

    D’: Elijah Goes Out and Stands (19:13a)

    When Elijah hears the voice, he obeys the command that he was {39} given in section D (v. 11a) to go out and stand. Before he moves to the mouth of the cave, he wraps his mantle around his face, presumably to protect himself from seeing the presence of God which would lead to instant death (cf. Exod. 33:20).

    C’: I Have Been Zealous (19:13b-14)

    God again asks Elijah what he is doing at Horeb, strengthening the impression that he is not entirely thrilled by his prophet’s withdrawal from ministry. Elijah’s reply, identical to that in v. 10, illustrates that he has not yet recommitted himself to prophetic ministry, and that self-pity and a grandiose view of his own importance are still a problem. 11

    B’: Elijah’s Renewal Is Completed (19:15-18)

    Again, God does not respond directly to Elijah’s self-serving answer, but instead gives him a new commission. Elijah is to retrace his steps, leave Horeb, and travel to Damascus in order to anoint Hazael as King of Syria; then he is to anoint Jehu as King of Israel and Elisha as his own prophetic successor. As DeVries so eloquently puts it, “Doubts will cease and misgivings vanish when God puts him to work.” 12 Elijah’s return to the land signifies a return to God’s service. 13 God’s “appearance” to Elijah is not an end in itself but is intended to revitalize the prophet so that he can return to the social arena where God needs agents to implement the divine purposes. 14 Elijah’s commission includes a word of judgment for Israel, as the three persons whom Elijah is to anoint will each enact horrible slaughter of Baal worshipers. In essence, Elijah’s ministry is to continue as before: he is to promote absolute loyalty to Yahweh which includes facilitating judgment on apostate Israelites. (Dealing with the huge theological problems of such judgment and religious intolerance will have to be the subject of another article.)

    In the recommissioning, God highlights the existence of seven thousand Israelites who have not engaged in rituals honoring Baal. Given that the numbers seven and one thousand are often symbolic numbers of completeness in the Bible (Gen. 4:15; Exod. 12:15; Josh. 6:4; Acts 6:3; Exod. 20:6; Deut. 1:11; Rev. 20:3), seven thousand emphasizes the substantial size of the nucleus of God’s faithful community. Elijah need not be so discouraged or take himself so seriously because he is far from being the only person committed to the divine cause.

    In 1 Kings 19 two things bring Elijah out of his state of discouragement and lethargy. One is a new commission from God, and the other is the assurance that God’s cause has a future in the world which does not depend only on Elijah’s personal success or lack thereof. 15 A sturdy {40} faith capable of weathering opposition and failure requires both these elements: a strong sense of call to a mission, and a recognition that God’s cause in the world far transcends any individual’s efforts on behalf of that mission.

    A’: Elijah Returns to His Prophetic Ministry (19:19-21)

    The last section of the narrative demonstrates that God’s assurance and recommissioning have the desired effect. A renewed and reinvigorated Elijah returns to his ministry, and by calling Elisha as his prophetic successor, he begins to carry out the assigned tasks. Recognizing the chiastic structure of the story prevents one from minimizing the significance of these last verses by separating them from the rest of the narrative 16 or by describing them as an addendum. 17 A key function of this last section is to provide a contrast to Elijah’s state at the beginning of the story and to demonstrate that Elijah’s renewal and return to prophetic ministry are now complete.

    It is frequently noted that Elijah carries out only part of the divine instructions. He does not anoint Elisha but only places his prophetic mantle upon him. It is Elisha who actually anoints Hazael as king of Syria (2 Kings 8:7-15), and it is one of Elisha’s followers who anoints Jehu as king of Israel (2 Kings 9:1-10). These discrepancies probably resulted from the independent origins of the Elijah and Elisha traditions, 18 but from the perspective of the completed narrative we need not interpret Elijah’s actions or lack thereof as half-heartedness, or unfaithfulness, or evidence that he has been relieved of his prophetic office. 19 Rather, one act of Elijah is reported to signify that he is once again functioning as God’s faithful prophet. The last sentence of the story stresses that Elisha follows Elijah and becomes his attendant. Clearly, 1 Kings 19 as well as the ongoing narrative indicate that Elijah will eventually be relieved of his prophetic duties and that the future belongs to Elisha, but this should not be interpreted as a critique of Elijah.

    A contemporary analogy might be a senior person calling and mentoring a young person for a leadership position in business, academia, or the church. We would not necessarily interpret such action as a critique of the experienced person, but as a recognition of how important it is to call and nurture the next generation of leaders. Part of God’s response to the discouragement of Elijah is to provide for ongoing prophetic leadership so that Elijah will realize that not everything depends on him. The important point is that through Elijah’s return to ministry and the calling of Elisha, the older prophet continues to play a {41} significant role in carrying forward God’s purposes.

    Elisha comes from a very wealthy family, illustrated by the fact that he is plowing with twelve yoke of oxen (presumably each yoke accompanied by a plowman) when Elijah places the prophetic mantle upon him. Yet Elisha leaves all behind, bids farewell to his parents, and sets off to follow Elijah. Before doing so he butchers his yoke of oxen and feeds the meat to the people. For an Israelite farmer to butcher his oxen is equivalent to a modern farmer torching the combine. Elijah burns the bridges to his former way of life so that he can be faithful to God’s call.

    Eating meat was a rare treat for ordinary Israelites, and so Elisha’s feeding of the people symbolizes the value of prophecy to the people. This is in keeping with other Old Testament passages where food is a metaphor for God’s life-giving word. 20 In Amos 8:11-12 God’s judgment of death consists of a famine, not of bread and water, but of hearing the word of Yahweh. In Deuteronomy 8:3 Moses states that God’s gift of manna was intended to teach the Israelites that humans do not live by bread alone but by everything that issues from the mouth of God. God’s people cannot live without God’s life-giving word, and often it is the prophets who proclaim this life-giving word. Elisha’s provision of meat suggests that if prophets heed their call, then the people will be fed. 21


    Observing the chiastic structure of 1 Kings 19 brings into focus the various steps God uses to renew a weary, discouraged, and suicidal prophet. First comes the divine messenger’s touch and the gift of food and water, with the suggestion of a special trip. This sustenance makes possible Elijah’s pilgrimage to Horeb, the mountain of God. Twice Elijah vents his feelings of frustration, indicating that even though his energy has begun to return, his renewal is far from complete. It will take a new commission and reassurance from God’s quiet thin voice to complete Elijah’s transformation. God informs Elijah that the divine plans and purposes do not depend only on him, and he is instructed to retrace his steps, return to ministry, and perform specific tasks on God’s behalf. The story concludes with the renewed Elijah calling and mentoring Elisha to be his assistant and successor who will carry the torch after he departs the scene.

    May this discussion of 1 Kings 19 contribute at least in a small way to the renewal of God’s people, as it encourages reflection on how God’s ways with Elijah might parallel God’s ways with us. {42}


    1. See for example G. H. Jones, 1 and 2 Kings, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 2:331; and especially Ernst Würthwein, “Elijah at Horeb: Reflections on 1 Kings 19:9-18,” in Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies, ed. John I. Durham and J. R. Porter (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1970), 152-66.
    2. All translations of biblical texts are by the author.
    3. The second question-response (19:13b-14) is sometimes regarded as an addition to the text necessary to resume the narrative after the supposedly awkward interpolation of the theophany in 19:11-13a. See Würthwein, “Elijah at Horeb,” 159-62, whose analysis is accepted by Jones, 1 and 2 Kings, 2:331. The chiastic structure of the story indicates that the completed text is a deliberate and artful creation and that we do well to look for the significance of all its features, rather than view certain parts as awkward additions or distortions.
    4. Robert B. Coote, “Yahweh Recalls Elijah,” in Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith, ed. Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 116; Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1987), 126.
    5. Alan J. Hauser, “Yahweh Versus Death: The Real Struggle in 1 Kings 17-19,” in From Carmel to Horeb: Elijah in Crisis, ed. Alan J. Hauser, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 85 (Sheffield, England: Almond, 1990), 64.
    6. For a more thorough discussion of both the parallels and differences between Moses and Elijah, see Mordechai Cogan, 1 Kings, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 456-57; Brian Britt, “Prophetic Concealment in a Biblical Type Scene,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2002): 37-58.
    7. Hauser, “Yahweh Versus Death,” 71; Gene Rice, Nations Under God: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Kings, International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 158; Terence E. Fretheim, First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 109.
    8. Iain W. Provan 1 and 2 Kings, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 145.
    9. Bernard P. Robinson goes so far as to speak of Elijah’s “megalomania” in “Elijah at Horeb, 1 Kings 19:1-18: A Coherent {43} Narrative?” Revue biblique 98, no. 4 (1991): 534; see also pp. 528-30.
    10. Rice, Nations Under God, 162. For a detailed discussion of various interpretations of the “quiet, thin, voice,” see Robinson, “Elijah at Horeb,” 522-27.
    11. Nelson, First and Second Kings, 125.
    12. Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1985), 237.
    13. Coote, “Yahweh Recalls Elijah,” 119. My interpretation contradicts Robinson’s claim that far from restoring Elijah to his ministry, Yahweh is forcing him to resign. See also Cogan, 1 Kings, 457. Robinson asserts that because Elijah has fled from his ministry, because he has betrayed Yahweh, and because he possesses such a grandiose view of himself, God no longer has any use for him and therefore commands him to hand over his ministry to Elisha. See “Elijah at Horeb,” 528-31. Robinson’s analysis depends on reading 1 Kings 19 largely in isolation from the ongoing narrative and downplaying the fact that Elijah continues to function as Yahweh’s loyal prophet (1 Kings 21:17-28; 2 Kings 1:1-18) who is chauffeured into “heaven” by God’s whirlwind, presumably as reward for his faithful ministry (2 Kings 2:1-12), and whose prophetic mantle and spirit continue to have power even after his departure (2 Kings 2:13-15).
    14. Walter Brueggemann, 1 Kings, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1982), 90.
    15. Nelson, First and Second Kings, 129.
    16. Cf. DeVries, 1 Kings, 238-40; Robinson, “Elijah at Horeb,” 530.
    17. Cf. Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 234.
    18. See Cogan, 1 Kings, 457.
    19. See note 13.
    20. Coote, “Yahweh Recalls Elijah,” 119-20.
    21. Ibid., 120.
    Dan Epp-Tiessen is Assistant Professor of Bible at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has an M.A. from the University of Manitoba and a Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto. Some of his previous involvements include working for Mennonite Central Committee, homemaking, and pastoral ministry.

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