I’ve recently returned from a six week trip to Wales and, inevitably, have been asked a multitude of times how my trip was. The simple answer is that it was good. The complex answer is that, like a lot of things in life, it was good and it was hard. I first came to Wales in March of 2014, and that trip truly changed the direction of my life. It ushered in a number of years that were the most difficult and most fruitful in my life thus far. And as I came to Wales this year with the awareness that one season of my life is giving way to another,I found a certain song playing on repeat in my mind each day:
“On the mountain tall, whisper to me words in a voice so small
Like the one that to Elijah called,
Quiet as a candle,bright as the morning sun.
Though the fire and the wind shattered down the hills with a rage unbent
And a fear that shook the firmament,
He was not within them, the clatter of brass and drums.
I know you want me to be afraid.
I know you want me to love you.”
This song by The Oh Hellos references the story of Elijah in the cave from 1 Kings 19. As I was humming this song to myself day by day during my trip, one of my team members felt led to preach on this chapter. Curious. What was God wanting us to see?
To answer that, we’re going to have to take a bit of wider look at the Bible and a bit deeper look into the last four years of my life. If you search for the word “cave” in the Bible, you’ll start to see a pattern. If someone is in a cave in the Bible, they are on the retreat or they are dead. Lot and his daughters flee from Sodom and Gomorrah and live in a cave. Abraham purchases a cave to bury Sarah. The five Amorite kings retreat and hide in a cave. Obadiah hid the prophets of the LORD in a cave. And so on. The cave communicates both a sense of vulnerability and of covering, and when the LORD is present at the cave, it becomes a place of rebirth – of resurrection.
The last four years of my life have been a bit like a cave. They started with God giving me a heart for the church in Wales and then immediately saying that it wasn’t yet time for me to plant my life there. Instead, I was instructed to put roots down in Oklahoma City. What proceeded were years full of grief and struggle, consolation and growth. They have been years where I had to learn to be fed by God’s own hand. And I found my experience paralleled that of David in 1 Samuel 22.
“David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became captain over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.”
David had been anointed by God; he was going to be king over Israel. He had slain Goliath. He was a hero.
But he did not immediately become king.
David was righteous. He was not going to take kingship for himself. He would wait on the LORD to make him king. And so, when Saul pursued him, he fled. He took shelter in the cave of Adullam. It would be years before he finally became king. But it was during that time that David learned to be a leader of men. As the people rallied around him, he had to learn how to deal wisely, deal compassionately, with them. He had to learn how to be fed by God’s own hand. The time in the cave, the years on the run, trained David for his time as king. In the same way, the last four years have taught me a dependency on God that I would not have known otherwise, a dependency I will surely have to live into as I enter this next season of life, whatever it may be.
Which brings us back to 1 Kings 19. What does God want us to see?
The chapter opens with Jezebel hearing of Elijah slaying the prophets of Baal and issuing a threat on Elijah’s life. Elijah becomes afraid and flees to the wilderness. Because of the adversity he faces, Elijah prays that God would take away his life, and then he falls asleep. But Elijah does not die. He wakes to find the angel of the LORD near him, instructing him to eat, because his journey will be long. Elijah is much more literally fed by God’s own hand.
Elijah then runs forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, where Moses saw the burning bush. He hides himself in a cave there, and God asks him a very familiar question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah pours out his heart before God, his frustration, his loneliness, his despair. And, like we see in Job, like we see in Matthew 11, God answers Elijah with himself. Natural disasters descend upon the mountain, but God is not in them. God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice and gives him both comfort and a commission. There is more work that Elijah must do to accomplish God’s will for Israel, but he is not alone. God has set apart Elisha to accompany Elijah, and he has saved for himself seven thousand people in Israel who refused to worship Baal.
The cave was a transformative experience for Elijah, and the rest of his story is full of boldness and faithfulness to God. Gone is the fearful heart. Why is this? Because Elijah’s view of God was corrected. Elijah’s fear of man had distracted him from his fear of God. So God showed him something to fear. God demonstrated his complete authority over his creation. And yet, God was not in these things he displayed. If we expect God to talk to us like a natural disaster, we’re not going to hear him. Is God almighty and terrible and awe-striking? Yes. Most certainly. He is to be feared above anything in creation. His holiness is too great for us, and if we were to stand before him in all his glory, we would be completely obliterated.
But,
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103)
Elijah’s experience in the cave should remind us of Moses, not only when God proclaims his authority over creation out of the burning bush, but when God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock. Moses has just entreated God for the salvation of Israel, and God has just assured Moses of his favor toward him. Moses asks to see the glory of God. God, in his love for Moses, says:
“I will make my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live. Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
In his Heidelberg Theses, Martin Luther said,
“The one who beholds what is invisible of God, through the perception of what is made, is not rightly called a theologian. But rather the one who perceives what is visible of God, God’s “backside”, by beholding the sufferings of the cross.”
Yes, the story of Moses and the story of Elijah should also make us look forward to Jesus dying on the cross and being laid in a tomb, a cave, if you will. God speaks in a variety of ways, but the clearest way to look upon his character is to look upon Jesus. He was the very power of God, performing miracles, casting out demons, and speaking with authority, and yet he was the very meekness of God, forgiving sins, having compassion on the crowds, and patiently teaching his disciples. In his meekness he submitted to death, and in his power he rose from the dead. The Christian life begins with a death to sin and a call to life in Christ. It is not surprising, then, that in the Christian life we will at times be called by God to enter the cave and to learn to be fed by his own hand. Rather than being frustrated to find ourselves on the retreat again, we can take joy in the fact that God has seen our troubles and is going to strengthen us to be able to do his good will. In these times, we can pray as David did in Adullam,
“With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!
In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’
Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!
Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” (Psalm 142)