Elijah, a Hebrew prophet of the ninth century B. C., is considered one of the most revered, enduring, and universal figures of the Old Testament. Jewish families worldwide remember him annually at Passover. Every Seder table has its specially filled glass of wine on it, and an empty chair is provided for Elijah, which symbolizes his coming to announce the messianic day of deliverance.
Little is known of Elijah's origin, aside from his being a Tishbite, a settler in the region of Gilead. The biblical account of Elijah's life centers about his controversy with the worship of Baal of Tyre, a foreign god sponsored by Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre and wife of Ahab, king of Israel. Even Elijah's name emphasizes this conflict with alien gods: it means "Yahweh is God."
The prophet predicted that drought would come to the land. God led him to a wadi, a dried-out riverbed, called Cherith, located east of the Jordan River. There God caused the ravens to bring food to Elijah. He was able to find water under the surface of the dry watercourse. Eventually even that water dried up completely, and God sent Elijah to Zarephath in the region of Sidon near the Mediterranean. There he stayed with a widow who lived with her only son. For the duration of the drought, God miraculously kept replenishing a supply of flour in her jar and oil in her jug. After a time, the young boy became very ill and finally stopped breathing. Elijah carried him to his room, and stretching himself out on the boy three times, prayed earnestly for his recovery. Soon the child started breathing again, and Elijah returned him to his mother.
Elijah came out of hiding and presented himself to King Ahab. The prophet challenged the king to a public demonstration of the power of God over the power of Baal. Ahab summoned 450 priests of Baal to the top of Mt. Carmel to meet with Elijah. In response to Elijah's challenge, the priests slaughtered a bull, placed it on a pyre, and called on Baal to light a fire under the animal. Nothing happened. They called to the god from dawn to noon, and still nothing happened. Elijah taunted the priests by suggesting that Baal was asleep, so they made a great noise and lacerated themselves to attract Baal's attention. Yet nothing happened. This continued until sundown.
Then Elijah called the people to him. He prepared an altar that had been made for the worship of God, using twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. He dug a trench around the altar, built a pyre and put a bull on it, and then filled the trench with water. After ordering that the sacrifice and the wood be doused with water three times, he called on God to accept the sacrifice. The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the soil; it also dried up the water in the trench. The people acknowledged that the LordYahweh-was God, and that Baal was a false god. Elijah ordered the people to kill the priests of Baal in the Kishon Valley. Then the drought broke and the rains covered the land.
When Jezebel heard that Elijah had ordered the death of the priests of Baal, she wanted to kill him. Elijah fled south into the Negev desert. He would have died of hunger had not an angel of the Lord fed him. Under the angel's direction, Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights into the Sinai to Mount Horeb(Mt. Sinai), where Moses had received the Law from God. After a dramatic meeting with the Lord, who spoke not out of the whirlwind but in a still, small voice, Elijah returned to Israel to find many people who still loved the Lord. One of them was Elisha, who followed Elijah as his servant.
Elijah helped Ahab win a victorious war against Damascus. Yet Ahab foolishly freed the king of Damascus, who had been captured by the Israelite army. One of the Lord's prophets told Ahab that his life was forfeited and that judgment would fall on his house. In time Ahab repented, and.the Lord said, through Elijah, that judgment would fall on Ahab's house after he died. Ahab eventually was killed in battle. His son Ahaziah followed the ways of Baal, leading the people back into idolatry.
One day Ahaziah fell, injuring himself. He sent messengers to the center of Baal worship to find out whether he would recover. Elijah met them on the way and told them that Ahaziah would die because he had forsaken the Lord. Twice the king sent a contingent of troops to arrest Elijah, but each time fire from heaven consumed the soldiers when they tried to capture the prophet. Finally, Elijah under safe conduct visited Ahaziah and told him face to face why he would die-and then the king died. One day as Elijah and Elisha were walking in the country, a fiery chariot appeared and carried Elijah away. He was swept up into heaven "in a whirlwind." Although Elijah's disciples searched for him, he was never found.
Elijah preached the return to Mosaic standards to a nation that had departed far from the Law. The biblical account of Elijah's life reveals several parallels to that of Moses. Elijah was sent to Mount Horeb, the mountain where Moses had met God and received the Law. just as Moses was succeeded by Joshua, Elijah was succeeded by Elisha. There was a mystery connected both with the death of Moses (Dent. 36.6) and the ascent of Elijah directly to heaven. just as God vindicated Elijah by sending fire from heaven, he had so vindicated Moses (Exod. 13.21, 19.18; Num. 11.1 and 16-35). In later Jewish thought, Elijah and Moses were often linked together. During the late prophetic period and the time of the Maccabean kingdom, Elijah came to be considered the one who would announce the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Malachi wrote: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. 4.5,6).
In the Gospels, we read that some people thought John the Baptist was Elijah come back to life. in Matthew 17:9-13, Jesus said it was so. Others thought Jesus himself might be Elijah rather than the Messiah. Before Jesus started on his fateful trip to Jerusalem, he met with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, where they "spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9.31).