Over a lifetime, everyone does something good or righteous that seems to go unrewarded. Many pour their lives into doing God's work, yet see little or no fruit from their efforts. Some have even felt their lives took a turn for the worse after giving their all for God.
In these feelings we are not alone. Down through the centuries, holy men and women of God have zealously given themselves to God for His use, but many of them suffered abuse, exile and martyrdom. Often, the fruit of their labors became fully developed only after their deaths. Some accomplished their greatest works for God in their deaths, like Abel, whose blood still speaks as a witness (Hebrews 11:4; 12:24).
The Case of Elijah
Elijah the Tishbite, prophet to Israel during the ninth century BC, felt like this near the end of his ministry. With God working through him, he had accomplished great works and been the sole instrument of restoring the true worship to Israel during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. Having established at least three schools of the prophets—in Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho—he spread the knowledge of God's way throughout the land (II Kings 2:1-5). He was also well known in the surrounding nations (I Kings 18:10).
At his word a three-and-a-half year drought had plagued the land, when not even dew would fall on Israel because of their idolatry (James 5:17; I Kings 17:1). During the drought, God had hidden the prophet from Ahab's agents sent to bring him back to Samaria, and ravens fed him morning and evening (verse 6). Later, staying with a widow and her son, he had provided them with flour and oil for over two years (verses 8-16). And when the widow's son died, God had used Elijah to resurrect him (verses 17-24).
But maybe his most astounding work was still before him. Assembling all the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel, where Baal supposedly lived and was the strongest (verse 19), Elijah had called down fire from heaven, which consumed the sacrifice he had prepared and drenched with water (verses 30-38). After the execution of the prophets of Baal (verse 40), he had climbed a promontory and prayed seven times for the drought to end, which God did (verses 42-44). In yet another miracle, running before Ahab's chariot, he had beaten the king back to Jezreel about nineteen miles away (verses 45-46).
But Jezebel, after hearing of his exploits, had threatened his life, and Elijah fled to Beersheba (I Kings 19:2-3). Why? Some commentators feel that he ran, not in fear, but out of conviction that he needed to commune with God. He may have thought that, after the tremendous works on Mount Carmel, the whole nation would be converted—but now he was in danger of losing his life! His expectations and God's purpose did not coincide by a long shot. Like us, he did not always know where God was leading him and His people. His apparent lack of success and his doubts drove him to seek God's counsel in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, because "Elijah was a man with a nature like ours" (James 5:17), he fell into deep despair and self-pity (I Kings 19:4), when he should have been the most excited and anxious to forge ahead with God's work. Rather than take advantage of God's victory over Baal, Elijah left the country in the lurch. So God had to teach him a lesson about the way He works.
A Hard Lesson
First, He sent an angel, possibly the Word, the Angel of the Lord (cf. verse 7; Genesis 22:15; Exodus 3:2), to give him food and drink (verse 5). He needed revitalized after expending so much energy in God's service. But after eating, Elijah did a typically human thing—he went back to sleep (verse 6)! How often have we studied deeply into God's Word, consuming meaty material, then sunk back into spiritual drowsiness after we were satisfied?
Second, He sent the angel back again with more food from heaven with an explanation of its purpose: "because the journey is too great for you" (verse 7). To paraphrase the angel's reason, he said, "You need more strength to do what is beyond your natural abilities." God often calls upon us to do more than we humanly can, but He always supplies us with the strength to do it. After this, Elijah understood what God wanted of him, and he made his way to Mount Sinai (verse 8).
Possibly in the same cave where Moses saw God (Exodus 33:17-23; 34:4-7), Elijah finally vocalized to God why he had fled to the wilderness: in his zeal he felt alone, rejected and ineffective (verse 10). By God's blunt response, it seems that He had decided that Elijah needed a quick and effective dose of reality.
In the tremendously powerful wind, earthquake and fire, God showed that though He causes or allows great works that destroy, punish or expose the ungodly, His greatest work is elsewhere. He was in the "still small voice" (verse 12). He does His most astounding and effective work in the background, working His salvation in (Psalm 74:12) and giving His gifts, His grace, to His people (Ephesians 4:7). In a sense, He told Elijah He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9).
Undaunted, though humbled, Elijah still insisted that he was alone, rejected and ineffective (verse 14). Almost curtly, God gave the prophet something to do, though nothing on the scale of his former work (verses 15-17). But before He sent Elijah away, God reminded him that in his self-absorption he had forgotten all the other people with whom He had been working. "Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him" (verse 18).
A Lesson for Us
Throughout this episode God had worked to restore his prophet's faith and hope, and with this accomplished Elijah returned to Israel and began a new phase of His work (verse 19). But what lesson can we draw from this?
Except as we see the fruits of God's Spirit in evidence, we cannot know where God is working today. As He worked in Elijah's day, He is working in ours, doing His main work in the lives of individual Christians. His purpose is to reproduce Himself, to bring sons and daughters into His Kingdom (Romans 8:14-17; II Corinthians 6:18). God taught Elijah that a spectacular public work—even with stupendous miracles, signs and wonders—is not more important than the salvation of His people.
After realizing this, we can push on in renewed confidence with what God has given us to do. We can know that God will take our efforts and multiply them, making our work far more effective than we could humanly. And we can boldly move forward in faith and hope, understanding that God is in charge of His church.