Who Was Elijah in the Bible? Elijah’s Story in 8 Roles
Who was Elijah in the Bible? Elijah was a prophet of Yahweh sent to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Through displays of miraculous power and prophecies of hard truth, Elijah tried to call the people back from Baal worship to their covenant relationship with God. After Elijah was taken into heaven without dying, his legacy lived on, as both the prototype for the Messiah’s forerunner and an apocalyptic figure.
If we want to understand who Elijah was, we need to see him in his historical context. After the Jewish people fled slavery in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land, they eventually became a kingdom ruled by Jewish kings. The first three kings of the Jewish kingdom were Saul, then David, then Solomon. After Solomon, the kingdom split into two parts: the North (“Israel”) and the South (“Judah”). The northern half of the “Divided Kingdom” immediately veered into idol worship. The seventh king of the North, King Ahab, took idolatry to new levels. His wife Jezebel, the daughter of a Phoenician king, imported Baal worship and aggressively led the nation to reject their covenant relationship with Yahweh and follow the god Baal.
It was in the context of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign that God sent the prophet Elijah to call the people back to God.
A Quick Outline of Elijah’s Life: PROPHECIES
The following is an outline of the high points of Elijah’s life. Since Elijah remains the quintessential Jewish prophet, it’s appropriate to outline his life using the acronym PROPHECIES:
In response to the North’s idol worship, Elijah’s prophetic ministry begins with a plague. Elijah announces that it will not rain for three years.
Eljiah is now a hunted man, and he must hide from the king as well as survive the drought. He hides near a brook east of the Jordan, where God sends ravens to bring him food.
When the brook dries up, Eljiah journeys north into Sidon. There, he stays with a widow and her son who were about to starve, but because of their hospitality, God keeps their food from running out. When the son unexpectedly dies, Elijah raises him to life.
On the third year of the drought, Elijah appears to King Ahab and proposes that they put both gods—Baal and Yahweh—to a public test on Mount Carmel. Whichever one answers by fire will be acknowledged as God. While Baal remains inert, Yahweh sends fire on Elijah’s sacrifice and proves himself to be God.
“While Baal remains inert, Yahweh sends fire on Elijah’s sacrifice and proves himself to be God.”
When Elijah has the prophets of Baal killed after the Yahweh-Baal contest, Queen Jezebel vows revenge and Elijah flees for his life. Rain resumes, yet Elijah becomes deeply depressed, feeling like he has failed in bringing people back to God. Again being hunted for his life, Elijah asks God to end his life.
An angel directs Elijah on a 40-day journey to Mount Horeb, which is where the Israelites had received God’s laws after the Exodus and entered a covenant with God. When Elijah arrives, God arrives in a “gentle whisper.” After listening to Elijah vent, God explains that there are actually thousands of God-followers still in Israel. Then God gives Elijah further instructions.
Following God’s instructions, Elijah approaches three individuals to give them commissions from God. He anoints the next king over Aram (Hazael), the next king over Israel (Jehu), and Elisha as his own prophetic successor.
Elijah returns to Israel to confront King Ahab over having killed a man to seize his vineyard. After Elijah predicts disaster on his reign, Ahab responds by fasting and publicly repenting. Later, after Ahab dies, his son Ahaziah becomes king. After falling and injuring himself, Ahaziah sends messengers to consult prophets of Baal as to if he will live or not. On their way, Elijah meets them and tells them to return to Ahaziah with news that his injuries will result in his death. Before dying, the king sends soldiers to capture Elijah, but he evades capture through fire coming from heaven.
Having imparted his prophetic mantle to Elisha, Elijah is brought up into heaven without dying. A chariot of fire appears and he disappears in a whirlwind.
“A chariot of fire appears and he disappears in a whirlwind.”
Elijah continues to make appearances throughout the rest of the Bible. It was predicted that “Elijah” would come again and herald the Messiah, and this turns out to be fulfilled in John the Baptist. Elijah also appears alongside Moses during Jesus’ Transfiguration, and the apocalyptic “two witnesses” described in Revelation 11 are patterned after Moses and Elijah.
1. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A gutsy prophet.
Elijah comes on the biblical scene with a very hasty introduction that tells us little about his background:
“Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.’” (1 Kings 17:1)
This many centuries after the fact, we aren’t able to make much of these signposts (“Tishbite,” “Tishbe,” “Gilead”), although we do know that Gilead was a region of the Jewish kingdom east of the Jordan River. Elijah’s name means, “Yahweh is my God,” which couldn’t be more appropriate in light of his life’s work of drawing people back to acknowledging God.
What immediately strikes the reader about Elijah is his gutsiness:
- When King Ahab calls him “troubler of Israel”: “I have not made trouble for Israel. But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.” (1 Kings 18:18)
- When confronting the people: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).
- When the prophets of Baal aren’t able to get Baal to respond, he says, “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)
Who was Elijah in the Bible? “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
This is a guy who kept popping up to antagonize the very king who kept swearing to kill him. Toward the end of the drought, a follower of God named Obadiah (although a secret follower, because he was also Ahab’s palace administrator) had this to say when he saw Elijah:
“As surely as the Lord lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you.” (1 Kings 18:10)
A good reason to stay away from the king, right? And yet, Elijah responds by asking Obadiah to set up a meeting with the king so that Elijah can challenge him to a contest.
Even Elijah’s manner of setting up his sacrifice during the contest on Mount Carmel is gutsy. After taunting Baal’s prophets in their failure to get their god’s attention, it was now his turn to call on God. He had four large water jars filled and poured on the offering (the pieces of the slaughtered bull). Then he had four more jars filled and poured out. And then one more time. All this during a drought! He was saying, “Not only will God burn up the sacrifice—but he’ll do it with the sacrifice completely drenched!” The guy had guts.
Who was Elijah in the Bible? “Elijah gives us an unsettling reminder that not everything is a win-win.”
Elijah gives us an unsettling reminder that not everything is a win-win. There are winners and losers when it comes to the collision of worldviews. He leaned all his trust and risked everything on God being God.
2. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A Spirit-filled revivalist.
What was motivating this guy’s insane courage? He was driven by his desire that his people return their allegiance from Baal to Yahweh. This passion fueled the public prayer he offered up just before asking God to consume the sacrifice on Mount Carmel:
“Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)
Who was Elijah in the Bible? “…so these people will know that you, Lord are God…”
And what gave him his power for trying to move this needle in the impossible times in which God had placed him? It was God’s Spirit who kept him going, even when in seemingly impossible situations (1 Kings 18:12, 46; 2 Kings 2:16).
3. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A hunted fugitive.
Eljiah spent most of his ministry in hiding. Prophets of God were being killed, such that the palace administrator Obadiah, a believer in God, had to hide prophets in caves to keep them alive. Similarly, Elijah spent a lot of time in lonely places and foreign nations in order to escape detection. At his lowest point (see the next section), Elijah was on the run again, for Jezebel had sworn to kill him after the contest on Mount Carmel.
4. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A depressed failure.
It’s interesting how quickly Elijah plunged from his mountaintop experience to the lowest depths of his life. When the contest on Mount Carmel worked—and the crowd watching even acknowledged God’s power—it became clear to Elijah that nothing much had changed. Ahab and Jezebel were still in power. Jezebel wasn’t kidding about killing him. He was back to hiding and being hunted again. When he finally found a safe spot to hide, he was depleted. Thinking the contest would spark nationwide revival, he looked back and realized he hadn’t moved the needle. It must have sunk his soul to have to say:
“I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4b)
Elijah was done. Baal had won, and he wasn’t even real.
An angel came to Elijah where was sleeping under a tree and urged him to get up. After providing him food, the angel directed him to travel a 40-day journey back to where Israel’s covenant with God had officially begun, at Mount Horeb. This was their first major stop after the Exodus and the mountain where they had received the law from God.
“The angel directed him to travel a 40-day journey back to where Israel’s covenant with God had officially begun.”
God had Elijah stand on the mountain, for he was going to pass by. There came a powerful wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire. Then came a gentle whisper. They had a conversation in which, first, God gave Elijah the opportunity to vent. Elijah explained how hard he had worked for God and how the Israelites were still killing prophets of God and how he was the only one left. God responded by assuring him that there were actually still 7,000 people in Israel who had not bowed to Baal. He wasn’t alone. God then gave Elijah directions:
- Anoint the next king over Aram (Hazael)
- Anoint the next king over Israel (Jehu)
- Commission Elisha as his prophetic successor
God’s gentle presence and reassurance were what Elijah needed to keep going. Elijah may have been living in impossible times up against insurmountable odds. Yet God’s gentle whisper brought something back to life in him, to where Elijah’s most significant accomplishment still lay ahead of him: discipling his successor to take up his ministry. Even though he just knew he was empty and done, he wasn’t. Elijah still had important work to do.
“God’s gentle presence and reassurance were what Elijah needed to keep going.”
5. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A disciple maker.
Sometimes God set prophets up to do prophetic work that wouldn’t actually work. For example, God commissioned the prophet Isaiah to go to Israel and preach repentance, all the while knowing that they wouldn’t repent: He would keep prophesying “until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant” (Is. 6:11). All that would be left by the end of Isaiah’s ministry would be a “stump,” a “holy seed” (Is. 6:13).
In the same way, Elijah wasn’t guaranteed that his people would turn back to God. As a matter of fact, as a nation led by idolatrous kings, the Northern kingdom would never return to God and would eventually be captured and scattered by the brutal Assyrian empire. This means that even the king of Israel that Eljiah would anoint as king (Jehu) would himself continue to lead his people into idolatry.
Who was Elijah in the Bible? “In light of these impossible times, what could Elijah do? He could make disciples.”
In light of these impossible times, what could Elijah do? He could make disciples. So, that’s what he did. His disciple Elisha would carry on Elijah’s ministry after Elijah was gone. Elisha’s ministry included multiple miracles of compassion. Elisha’s ministry would span the reigns of four Israelite kings.
6. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A messianic forerunner.
The final paragraph in the Jewish Bible is a prediction in Malachi that God would send Elijah again “to turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Mal. 4:6).
This explains why, when Jesus came on the scene, some wondered if he could be the “Elijah” who was to come (Matt. 16:14). Yet Jesus wasn’t Elijah; he was the Messiah to whom “Elijah” came to point people. This second “Elijah” was actually John the Baptist, who, like Elijah, wore a garment of hair and a leather belt around his waist (2 Kings 1:8; Matt. 3:4). As Jesus explained to his disciples, John the Baptist “is Elijah who was to come” (Matt. 11:14).
7. Who was Elijah in the Bible? A countercultural force.
During his ministry, Jesus mentioned Elijah as having a compassion to Gentiles which matched his own. This was not what Jesus’ hometown crowd at Nazareth wanted to hear. Jesus described his own mission by comparing it to Elijah’s:
“I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.” (Luke 4:25-26)
Who was Elijah in the Bible? “Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”
At this, Jesus’ hometown synagogue, who had loved his sermon until just fifteen minutes prior, were so upset they tried to kill Jesus. In this, Elijah turned out to be one of those popular ancient figures whom people celebrate now—but they wouldn’t have liked him back then. Jesus’ hometown crowd want him to be their Messiah, not some kind of Savior of the world.
8. Who was Elijah in the Bible? An iconic figure.
It is fascinating how, even after being taken into heaven, Elijah pops up in three pivotal moments in salvation history. First, as already mentioned, John the Baptist is the “Elijah” figure who prepares people for the arrival of Jesus. Second, Elijah and Moses show up during an event in the Gospels known as the “Transfiguration.” Jesus takes his inner three disciples up on a mountain, where his appearance morphs into one of heavenly glory. There beside him are both Moses and Elijah, talking with him about his forthcoming “departure,” which he would make in Jerusalem (Luke 9:28-31; this was most likely referring to his upcoming crucifixion).
There’s a final fascinating mention of Elijah in the Bible which doesn’t actually mention him by name. In the Bible’s final book, Revelation, “two witnesses” show up who look strikingly like Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, these apocalyptic figures turn waters into blood and strike the earth with plagues. Like Elijah, they shut up the sky so it doesn’t rain, and they devour their enemies with fire.
“Like Elijah, they shut up the sky so it doesn’t rain, and they devour their enemies with fire.”
It’s emboldening, if not a bit frightening, to consider James’s observation that Elijah was, in fact, a human like us. And that God can use us too in mighty ways in proportion to our prayers:
“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5:16b-18)