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Notes on Revelation


"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD"--Malachi 4:5

See "The Temple: Its Ministry and Services: Jewish Traditions about the Passover."

See also "A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica," Exercitations upon the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 17.

ELIJAH THE TISHBITE has been well entitled 'the grandest and the most romantic character that Israel ever produced.' Certainly there is no personage in the O.T. whose career is more vividly portrayed, or who exercises on us a more remarkable fascination. His rare, sudden, and brief appearances, his undaunted courage and fiery zeal, the brilliancy of his triumphs, the pathos of his despondency, the glory of his departure, and the calm beauty of his reappearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, throw such a halo of brightness around him as is equalled by none of his compeers in the sacred story. The ignorance in which we are left of the circumstances and antecedents of the man who did and who suffered so much, doubtless contributes to enhance our interest in the story and the character. 'Elijah the Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead,' is literally all that is given us to know of his parentage and locality. It is in remarkable contrast to the detail with which the genealogies of other prophets and leaders of Israel are stated. Where the place--if it was a place--lay, which gave him this appellation we know not, nor are we likely to know. It is not again found in the bible, nor has any name answering to it been discovered since.

The mention of Gilead, however, is the key-note to much that is most characteristic in the story of the prophet. Gilead was the country on the further side of the Jordan--a country of chase and pasture, of tent-villages, and mountain-castles, inhabited by a people not settled and civilized like those who formed the communities of Ephraim and Judah, but of wandering, irregular habits, exposed to the attacks of the nomad tribes of the desert, and gradually conforming more and more to the habits of those tribes; making war with the Hagarites, and attacking the countless thousands of their cattle, and then dwelling in their stead (1 Chron 5:10,19-22). To an Israelite of the tribes west of Jordan the title 'Gileadite' must have conveyed a similar impression, though in a far stronger degree, to that which the title 'Celt' does to us. What the Highlands were a century ago to the towns in the Lowlands of Scotland, that, and more than that, must Gilead have been to Samaria or Jerusalem.

With Elijah, of whom so much is told, and whose part in the history was so much more important, this is still more necessary. It is seen at every turn. Of his appearance as he 'stood before' Ahab--with the suddenness of motion to this day characteristic of the Bedouins from his native hills, we can perhaps realize something from the touches, few, but strong, of the narrative. Of his height little is to be inferred--that little is in favor of its being beyond the ordinary size. His chief characteristic was his hair, long and thick, and hanging down his back, * and which, if not betokening the immense strength of Samson, yet accompanied powers of endurance no less remarkable.

* 2 Kings 1:8, 'a hairy man'; literally, 'lord of hair.' This might be doubtful, even with the support of the LXX and Josephus and of the Targum Jonathan--the same word used for Esau in Genesis 27:11. But its application to the hair of his head is corroborated by the word used by the children of Bethel when mocking Elisha. 'Bald-head' is a peculiar term applied only to want of hair at the back of the head; and the taunt was called forth by the difference between the bare shoulders of the new prophet and the shaggy locks of the old one.

His ordinary clothing consisted of a girdle of skin round his loins, which he tightened when about to move quickly (1 Kings 18:46). But in addition to this he occasionally wore the 'mantle,' or cape, of sheep-skin, which has supplied us with one of our most familiar figures of speech. *

* Addereth, always used for this garment of Elijah, but not for that of any prophet before him. It is perhaps a trace of the permanent impression which he left on some parts of the Jewish society, that a hairy cloak became afterwards the recognized garb of a prophet of Jehovah (Zech 13:4; A.V. 'rough garment'; where the Hebrew word is the same which in Elijah's history is rendered 'mantle').

In this mantle, in moments of emotion, he would hide his face (1 Kings 19:13), or when excited would roll it up as into a kind of staff. On one occasion we find him bending himself down upon the ground with his face between his knees. *

* This is generally taken as having been in prayer; but kneeling apparently was not (certainly is not) an attitude of prayer in the East. 'When ye stand praying, forgive' (Mark 11:25; and see Matt 6:5, &c).

See "The Temple: Its Ministry and Services: Attitude in Prayer."

Such, so far as the scanty notices of the record will allow us to conceive it, was the general appearance of the great Prophet, an appearance which there is no reason to think was other than uncommon even at that time. *

* This is to be inferred, as we shall see afterwards, from king Ahaziah's recognition of him by mere description.

The solitary life in which these external peculiarities had been assumed had also nurtured that fierceness of zeal and that directness of address which so distinguished him. It was in the wild loneliness of the hills and ravines of Gilead that the knowledge of Jehovah, the living God of Israel, had been impressed on his mind, which was to form the subject of his mission to the idolatrous court and country of Israel.

The northern kingdom had at this time forsaken almost entirely the faith in Jehovah. The worship of the calves had been a departure from him, it was a violation of his command against material resemblances; but still it would appear that even in the presence of the calves Jehovah was acknowledged, and they were at any rate a national institution, not one imported from the idolatries of any of the surrounding countries. They were announced by Jeroboam as the preservers of the nation during the great crisis of its existence: 'Behold thy gods, O Israel, that brought thee up out of the land of Egypt' (1 Kings 12:28). But the case was quite different when Ahab, not content with the calf-worship--'as if it had been a light thing to walk in the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat'--marrried the daughter of the king of Sidon, and introduced on the most extensive scale the foregin religion of his wife's family, the worship of the Phoenician Baal. What this worship consisted of we are ignorant--doubtless it was of a gay, splendid, and festal character, and therefore very opposite to the grave, severe service of the Mosaic ritual. Attached to it and to the worship of Asherah (A.V. 'Ashtaroth,' and 'the groves') were licentious and impure rites, which in earlier times had brought the heaviest judgments on the nation (Num 25; Judg 2:13,14; 3:7,8). But the most obnoxious and evil characteristic of the Baal-religion was that it was the worship of power, of mere strength, as opposed to that of a God of righteousness and goodness--a foreign religion, * imported from nations the hatred of whom was inculcated in every page of the law, as opposed to the religion of that God who had delivered the nation from the bondage of Egypt, had 'driven out the heathen with his hand, and planted them in'; and through whom their forefathers had 'trodden down their enemies, and destroyed those that rose up against them.' It is as a witness against these two evils that Elijah comes forward.

* [And the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvellous things against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished: for that that is determined shall be done. Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all. But in his estate shall he honour the God of forces: and a god whom his fathers knew not shall he honour with gold, and silver, and with precious stones, and pleasant things. Daniel 11:36-38]

What we may call the first Act in his life embraces between three and four years--three years and six months for the duration of the drought, according to the statements of the New Testament (Luke 4:25; James 5:17), and three or four months more for the journey to Horeb, and the return to Gilead (1 Kings 17:1-19:21). His introduction is of the most startling description: he suddenly appears before Ahab, as with the unrestrained freedom of Eastern manners he would have no difficulty in doing, and proclaims the vengeance of Jehovah for the apostasy of the king. This he does in the remarkable formula evidently characteristic of himself, and adopted after his departure by his follower Elisha--a formula which includes everything at issue between himself and the king--the name of Jehovah, his being the God of Israel, the Living God, Elijah being his messenger, and then--the special lesson of the event--that the god of power and of nature should be beaten at his own weapons. 'As Jehovah, God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand,' whose constant servant I am, 'there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.' What immediate action followed on this we are not told; but it is plain that Elijah had to fly before some threatened vengeance either of the king, or more probably of the queen (comp. 19:2). Perhaps it was at this juncture that Jezebel 'cut off the prophets of Jehovah' (1 Kings 18:4). He was directed to the brook Cherith, either one of the torrents which cleave the high table-lands of his native hills, or on the west of Jordan, more in the neighborhood of Samaria. There in the hollow of the torrent-bed he remained, supported in the miraculous manner with which we are all familiar, till the failing of the brook obliged him to forsake it. How long he remained in the Cherith is uncertain. The Hebrew expression is simply 'at the end of days,' nor does Josephus afford us any more information. A vast deal of ingenuity has been devoted to explaining away Elijah's 'ravens.' The Hebrew word, Orebim, has been interpreted as 'Arabians,' as 'merchants,' as inhabitants of some neighboring town of Orbo or Orbi. By others Elijah has been held to have plunered a raven's nest--and this twice a day regularly for several months! There is no escape from the plain meaning of the words--occurring as they do twice, in a passage otherwise displaying no tinge of the marvellous--or from the unanimity of all the Hebrew MSS, of all the ancient versions, and of Josephus.

His next refuge was at Zarephath, a Phoenician town lying between Tyre and Sidon, certainly the last place at which the enemy of Baal would be looked for. The widow woman in whose house he lived seems, however, to have been an Israelite, and no Baal-worshipper, if we may take her adjuration by 'Jehovah thy God' as an indication. Here Elijah performed the miracles of prolonging the oil and the meal; and restored the son of the widow to life after his apparent death.

Here the prophet is first addressed by the title, which, although occasionally before used to others, is so frequently applied to Elijah as to become the distinguishing appellation of himself and his successor: 'O Thou man of God'--'Now I know that thou art a man of God' (1 Kings 17:18,24).

In this, or some other retreat, an interval of more than two years must have elapsed. The drought continued, and at last the full horrors of famine, caused by the failure of the crops, descended on Samaria. The king and his chief domestic officer divide between them the mournful duty of ascertaining that neither round the springs, which are so frequent a feature of central Palesine, nor in the nooks and crannies of the most shaded torrent-beds, was there any of the herbage left, which in those countries is so certain an indication of the presence of moisture. No one short of the two chief persons of the realm could be trusted with this quest for life or death--'Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself.' It is the moment for the reappearance of the prophet. He shows himself first to the minister. There, suddenly planted in his path, is the man whom he and his master have been seeking for more than three years. 'There is no nation or kingdom,' says Obadiah with true Eastern hyperbole, 'whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee'; and now here he stands when least expected. Before the sudden apparition of that wild figure, and that stern, unbroken countenance, Obadiah could not but fall on his face. Elijah, however, soon calms his agitation--'As Jehovah of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to Ahab'; and thus relieved of his fear that, as on a former occasion, Elijah would disappear before he could return with the king, Obadiah departs to inform Ahab that the man they seek is there. Ahab arrived, Elijah makes his charge--'Thou hast forsaken Jehovah and followed the Baals.' He then commands that all Israel be collected to Mount Carmel with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred of Asherah (Ashtaroth), the latter being under the especial protection of the queen.

There are few more sublime stories in history than this. On the one hand the solitary servant of Jehovah, accompanied by his one attendant; with is wild shaggy hair, his scanty garb, and sheep-skin cloak, but with calm dignity of demeanor and the minutest regularity of procedure, repairing the ruined altar of Jehovah with twelve stones, according to the number of the twelve founders of the tribes, and recalling in his prayer the still greater names of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel--on the other hand the 850 prophets of Baal and Ashtaroth, doubtless in all the splendor of their vestments (2 Kings 10:22), with the wild din of their 'vain repetitions' and the maddened fury of their disappointed hopes, and the silent people surrounding all--these things form a picture with which we are all acquainted, but which brightens into fresh distinctness every time we consider it. The conclusion of the long day need only be glanced at. The fire of Jehovah consuming both sacrifice and altar--the prophets of Baal killed, it would seem by Elijah's own hand (18:40)--the king, with an apathy almost unintelligible, eating and drinking in the very midst of the carnage of his own adherents--the rising storm--the ride across the plain to Jezreel, a distance of at least 16 miles: the prophet, with true Bedouin endurance, running before the chariot, but also with true Bedouin instinct stopping short of the city, and going no further than the 'entrance of Jezreel.'

So far the triumph had been complete; but the spirit of Jezebel was not to be so easily overcome, and her first act is a vow of vengeance against the author of this destruction. 'God do so to me, and more also,' so ran her exclamation, 'if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.' It was no duty of Elijah to expose himself to unnecessary dangers, and, as at his first introduction, so now, he takes refuge in flight. The danger was great, and the refuge must be distant. The first stage on the journey was Beer-sheba--'Beer-sheba which belongeth to Judah,' says the narrative, with a touch betraying its Israelitish origin. Here, at the ancient haunt of those fathers of his nation whose memory was so dear to him, and on the very confines of cultivated country, Elijah halted. His servant--according to Jewish tradition the boy of Zarephath--he left in the town; while he himself set out alone into the wilderness--the waste uninhabited region which surrounds the south of Palestine. The labors, anxieties, and excitement of the last few days had proved too much even for that iron frame and that stern resolution. His spirit is quite broken, and he wanders forth over the dreary sweeps of those rocky hills wishing for death--'It is enough! Lord, let me die, for I am not better than my fathers.' It is almost impossible not to conclude from the terms of the story that he was entirely without provisions for this or any journey. But God, who had brought his servant into this difficulty, provided him with the means of escaping from it. Whether we are to take the expression of the story literally or not is comparatively of little consequence. In some way little short of miraculous--it might well seem to the narrator that it could be by nothing but an angel--the prophet was awakened from his dream of despondency beneath the solitary bush of the wilderness, was fed with the bread and the water which to this day are all a Bedouin's requirements, and went forward, 'in the strength of that food,' a journey of forty days 'to the mount of God, even to Horeb.' Here, in 'the cave,' one of the numerous caverns in those awful mountains, perhaps some traditional sanctuary of that hallowed region, at any rate well known--he remained for certainly one night. In the morning came the 'word of Jehovah'--the question, 'What doest thou here, Elijah? Driven by what hard necessity dost thou seek this spot on which the glory of Jehovah has in former times been so signally shown?" In answer to this invitation the prophet opens his griefs. He has been very zealous for Jehovah; but force has been vain; one cannot stand against a multitude; none follow him, and he is left alone, flying for his life from the sword which has slain his brethren. The reply comes in that ambiguous and indirect form in which it seems necessary that the deepest communications with the human mind should be couched, to be effectual. He is directed to leave the cavern and stand on the mountain in the open air, face to face with Jehovah. Then, as before with Moses (Exo 34:6), 'The Lord passed by'; passed in all the terror of his most appalling manifestations. The fierce wind tore the solid mountains and shivered the granite cliffs of Sinai; the earthquake crash reverberated through the defiles of those naked valleys; the fire burnt in the incessant blaze of eastern lightning. Like these, in their degree, had been Elijah's own modes of procedure, but the conviction is now forced upon him that in none of these is Jehovah to be known. Then, penetrating the dead silence which followed these manifestations, came the fourth mysterious symbol--the 'still small voice.' What sound this was, whether articulate voice or not, we cannot even conjuecture; but low and still as it was it spoke in louder accents to the wounded heart of Elijah than the roar and blaze which had preceded it. To him no less unmistakably than to Moses, centuries before, it was proclaimed that Jehovah was 'merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.' Elijah knew the call, and at once stepping forward and hiding his face in his mantle, stood waiting for the Divine communication. It is in the same words as before, and so is his answer; but with what different force must the question have fallen on his ears, and the answer left his lips! 'Before his entrance to the cave, he was comparatively a novice; when he left it he was an initiated man. He had thought that the earthquake, the fire, the wind, must be the great witnesses of the Lord. But he was not in them; not they, but the still small voice had that awe in it which forced the prophet to cover his face with his mantle. What a conclusion of all the past history! What an interpretation of its meaning!" (Maurice, Prophets and Kings). Not in the persecutions of Ahab and Jezebel, nor in the slaughter of the prophets of Baal, but in the 7000 unknown worshippers who had not bowed the knee to Baal, was the assurance that Elijah was not alone as he had seemed to be.

Three commands were laid on him--three changes were to be made. Instead of Ben-hadad, Hazael was to be king of Syria; instead of Ahab, Jehu the son of Nimshi was to be king of Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat was to be his own successor. Of these three commands the two first were reserved for Elisha to accomplish, the last only was executed by Elijah himself.

Ahab and Jezebel now probably believed that their threats had been effectual, and that they had seen the last of their tormentor. At any rate this may be inferred from the events of chapter 21. Foiled in his wish to acquire the ancestral plot of ground of Naboth by the refusal of that sturdy peasant to alienate the inheritance of his fathers, Ahab and Jezebel proceed to possess themselves of it by main force, and by a degree of monstrous injustice which shows clearly enough how far the elders of Jezreel had forgotten the laws of Jehovah how perfect was their submission to the will of their mistress. At her orders Naboth is falsely accused of blaspheming God and the king, is with his sons stoned and killed, and his vineyard then--as having belonged to a criminal--becomes at once the property of the king.

Ahab loses no time in entering on his new acquisition. Apparently the very next day after the execution he proceeds in his chariot to take possession of the coveted vineyard. Behind him, probably in the back part of the chariot, ride his two pages Jehu and Bidkar (2 Kings 9:26). But the triumph was a short one. Elijah had received an intimation from Jehovah of what was taking place, and rapidly as the accusation and death of Naboth had been hurried over, he was there to meet his ancient enemy, and as an enemy he does meet him--as David went out to meet Goliath--on the very scene of his crime; suddenly, when least expected and least wished for, he confronts the miserable king. And then follows the curse, in terms fearful to any Oriental--peculiarly terrible to a Jew--and, most of all, significant to a successor of the apostate princes of the northern kingdom--'I will take away thy posterity; I will cut off from thee even thy very dogs; I will make thy house like that of Jeroboam and Baasha; thy blood shall be shed in the same spot where the blood of thy victims was shed last night; thy wife and thy children shall be torn in this very garden by the wild dogs of the city, or as common carrion devoured by the birds of the sky'--the large vultures which in eastern climes are always wheeling along under the clear blue sky, and doubtless suggested the expression to the prophet.

A space of three or four years now elapses (comp. 1 Kings 22:1,51; 2 Kings 1:17), before we again catch a glimpse of Elijah. The denunciations uttered in the vineyard of Naboth have been partly fulfilled. Ahab is dead, and his son and successor, Ahaziah, has met with a fatal accident, and is on his death-bed, after a short and troubled reign of less than two years (2 Kings 1:1,2; 1 Kings 22:51). In his extremity he sends to an oracle or shrine of Baal at the Philistine town of Ekron to ascertain the issue of his illness. But the oracle is nearer at hand than the distant Ekron. An intimation is conveyed to the prophet, probably at that time inhabiting one of the recesses of Carmel, and, as on the former occasions, he suddenly appears on the path of the messengers, without preface or inquiry utters his message of death, and as rapidly disappears. The tone of his words is as national on this as on any former occasion, and, as before, they are authenticated by the name of Jehovah--'Thus saith Jehovah, Is it because there is no God in Israel that ye go to inquire of Baal-zebub, god of Ekron?" The messengers returned to the king too soon to have accomplished their mission. They were possibly strangers; at any rate they were ignorant of the name of the man who had thus interrupted their journey. But his appearance had fixed itself in their minds, and their description at once told Ahaziah, who must have seen the prophet about his father's court or have heard him described in the harem, who it was that had thus reversed the favorable oracle which he was hoping for from Ekron. The 'hairy man'--the 'lord of hair,' so the Hebrew reading runs--with a belt of rough skin round his loins, who came and went in this secret manner, and uttered his fierce words in the name of the God of Israel, could be no other than the old enemy of his father and mother, Elijah the Tishbite. But ill as he was this check only roused the wrath of Ahaziah, and, with the spirit of his mother, he at once seized the opportunity of possessing himself of the person of the man who had been for so long the evil genius of his house. A captain was despatched, with a party of fifty, to take Elijah prisoner. He was sitting [perhaps-'dwelt'] on the top of 'the mount,' i.e. probably of Carmel (comp. 2 Kings 2:25). The officer approached and addressed the prophet by the title which, as before noticed, is most frequently applied to him and Elisha--'O man of God, the king hath spoken: come down.' 'And Elijah answered and said, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume thee and thy fifty! And there came down fire from heaven and consumed him and his fifty." A second party was sent, only to meet the same fate. The altered tone of the leader of a third party, and the assurance of God that his servant need not fear, brought Elijah down. But the king gained nothing. The message was delivered to his face in the same words as it had been to the messengers, and Elijah, so we must conclude, was allowed to go harmless. This was his last interview with the house of Ahab. It was also his last recorded appearance in person against the Baal-worshippers.

(Dr. William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, 1872)

"Over the centuries the Jews have developed a number of traditions about Elijah the prophet...His appearance as the forerunner of Messiah will motivate the Jewish people to national and individual repentance. The rabbis believe that Elijah and the Messiah will usher in a time of peace and harmony for all nations. They believe that Elijah will resolve all legal questions and the discrepancies in religious law (Halachah). In addition they expect him to establish the proper rituals for the restoration of the Temple service. Curiously, they describe Elijah as a partner to Moses in God's coming kiingdom, the same role that Aaron used to perform during the Exodus.

"The rabbis teach that Elijah will appear at some point in time (either three days or three years) before the advent of the Messiah. They anticipate that he will appear in Palestine and utter a lament over the devastation of the Holy Land. After Michael the Archangel blows his trumpet, Elijah will introduce the Messiah to the world. The Talmud claims that several wonders will accompany the coming of Elijah and the Messiah: (1) He will bring Moses back to life. (2) He will reveal the secret location of the three holy vessels that mysteriously disappeared: the Ark of the Covenant, the Flask of Manna and the container of sacred anointing oil. (3) He will carry the royal scepter of Judah which God promised 'shall not depart from Judah...until Shiloh come' (Gen 49:10). (4) He will transform the geography of the Holy Land, leveling the mountains.

"Another curious belief of the rabbis is that Elijah will be one of the eight princes that will form the cabinet of the Messiah. Additionally, they tell us that Elijah will restore the tribal identities of the Jews."

(Prince of Darkness, Grant R. Jeffrey)

See also Armageddon
See also Bride
See also ' that he maketh fire come down from heaven...'
See also Jezebel
See also Messiah in The Legend of the Jews
See also Sheol/Hell/Gehenna
See also Two Witnesses

See also The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim
Appendix 8. Rabbinic Traditions about Elijah the Forerunner of Messiah


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