I am very aware that some people do not appreciate history. Memories of school days I suppose. Too many dates to remember, and too many detentions if those dates weren’t remembered. It’s a good job we are all wired differently. I love history. When I say that, I am not wanting to delude myself or my readers that I know a lot of history, but I can confidently assert that you would be hard pushed to find anybody who has a deeper interest and fascination – nay! obsession – with history, dates, stories, and the consequences in their future ( stuff that is now history to us).
I also have engaged with many Christians over the years who think that history demeans the scriptures and detracts from the word of God embodied in the text. Well! Let me declare I am a believer in the entire bible, I believe the contents, the significance and the power of everything contained in both the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. I also believe that Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s remarkable quote i.e. “A text without a context is a pretext,” is nearly always true.
The history that surrounds the days of Elijah highlight the depths of courage as well as the divine insight that motivated and carried Elijah through his high – profile days. This is not an apology for recounting the biblical history from Solomon’s death to Elijah’s appearance, but a rationale as to why I find it a little bit insipid to read Elijah’s journal without having fully imbibed the nature of the thick darkness that this brightest of prophetic lights entered into.
So; for the sake of those who are uninitiated with the biblical and historical context of the “poof” of divine smoke of the visible shekinah glory of God in which Elijah the Tishbite arrived on the radar, let me just put you in the picture. Then again, I suppose I should say that If you are comfortably au fait with what happened in the years between Solomon and king Ahab, you may want to skip the following spot of historical chronology and development and move on to the next blog.
Rightly or wrongly I always picture the days of Dickens (as portrayed in his novels) as being a time when England was full of dirt, smoke, grime, evil, poverty, ignorance and just a terrible time for the vast majority of people. In my head, I picture the days that led up to Elijah’s arrival with just the same motif. Things were dark – I mean seriously, morally and spiritually smog ridden and depraved.
The days of David and Solomon are hailed by all and sundry in the know as the brightest and most glorious days in Israel’s history. Much of the wealth attained through David’s reign was used by Solomon to affect a remarkable grandiose style of court and national life than his father. Solomon built what can only be referred to as a “complex” of structures to enhance his image in the sight of his people and the nations that surrounded Israel. He built his own royal palace, a palace for his Egyptian queen, suggesting that built others for his other wives, he built a “hall of pillars” a “throne room of justice” and a “house of the forest of Lebanon” which is assumed to be his treasury and/or his armoury. On top of that he constructed the glorious Temple we refer to as “Solomon’s”.
Solomon’s extravagance clearly brought him into debt – both personal and national – forcing him to have to mortgage part of his territory to Hiram king of Tyre. F.F. Bruce memorably wrote something to the effect that: “the text of First Kings refers to the cities that Solomon built for his chariots and horsemen (1 Kings 9:19 and 10:26) and we may be sure that Solomon’s horses were better housed than many of Solomon’s subjects were.”
Solomon found it necessary to impose heavy taxes on his subjects and to exact extreme forced labour from them. This sad state of affairs was predicted before Saul was anointed King by the great prophet Samuel. It was light years away from the freedom, joy and prosperity promised by Moses and the legacy of the Law that he left with humanity.
These facts explain how the wine of the prosperity and joy which accompanied the peace that overwhelmed Israel at the start of Solomon’s reign decomposed into the horribly bitter vinegar of disillusionment towards the end of his reign.
Solomon left behind him a nation that was miles away from the ancient ideals that their scriptures inculcated. It meant that if or when the Pentateuch was ever read, it seemed like a dream and a fairy tale that simply was not evident after Solomon’s demise. For all the above reasons Solomon’s death around 930 BC precipitated the collapse of David’s empire inherited by Solomon.
Immediately after the death of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was torn in two. As far as the Israeli public of the northern tribes were concerned it was their deep – seated complaint that Solomon had abused them. It was the proverbial split between the north and the south. The southern section of the rend had Jerusalem, the temple, the governmental establishment and, so far, forward to the days of Ahab, the descendants of David and Solomon on their throne.
The southern state, however, after Solomon’s burial and his son’s succession, was under the almost fascist like reign of Rehoboam. The northern “kingdom” was under the depraved hand of a man called Jeroboam the son of Nebat. He was a man who had superintended the vast public works during the reign of Solomon. He was, however, told by the word of the Lord that he would rule over ten tribes at a time when the very suggestion was an unspoken concept of fictitious rebellion – yet – shown by history to have been the true desire of the masses that lived in the “neglected” north of the whole land of Israel. Jeroboam the son of Nebat had, for several reasons during Solomon’s reign, fled to Egypt where it seems he was mentored and tutored into kingship by Shishak, the first Pharaoh of the 22nd dynasty of the double kingdom (i.e. north and south of Egypt). We know that Shishak reigned from 945 BC through to 914 BC. So Rehoboam knew very well the machinery of how royalty worked in his day.
The southern kingdom was known as Judah. That was because despite the fact that within its borders were the tribes of Simeon and Benjamin, they were virtually buried amongst the huge numbers of the tribe of Judah. The northern kingdom was known as Israel, comprising of all the other ten tribes. The people there began to think of Judah as almost alien and at times, sadly, the Davidic rulership down south was even enemy territory. Israel became known, also, as Ephraim.
As an aside, the mention of “Ephraim” as in Psalm 78 calls for a few defining remarks. Referencing the book of Genesis, we see that while sovereignty was at first invested in Judah, the birth-right involving familial headship after the death of Jacob was forfeited by Reuben and given to Joseph. (See 1 Chronicles 5:1-2). Joseph’s sons were actually numbered among the sons of Jacob. This was done when Jacob blessed them as per Genesis 48:5 in the same moments that Jacob blessed all his other sons. The double portion thereby, that is the portion of the senior son (normally the first born), became Joseph’s. The birth-right was inherited by Ephraim who was Joseph’s youngest as per Genesis 48). In the nation’s subsequent history we find that Ephraim was the tribe claiming the right of leadership and taking a prominent part in all the national enterprises. The claim gained support from two factors that were high in the psyche of the people of the north, namely that Joshua the son of Nun, the former great national leader succeeding Moses, was an Ephraimite, and that Shiloh, the site of the Tabernacle and therefore the epicentre of national worship before the northern kingdom instigated, was an Ephraimite city.
Following the national failure, and particularly that of the priesthood as recorded in the book of Judges as well as the early chapters of 1 Samuel, the primacy of the firstborn was set aside and God’s sovereign choice fell upon David who was a Judahite, and Zion in Jerusalem was in the heart of Judah’s territory, as well in the heart of God’s ordained earthly kingdom. The divine purpose so clearly declared in earlier scriptures (Genesis 49:1-10. Judges 1:1-2. Psalm 60:7) is thus seen in historical development, culminating in the fulfilment of Isaiah 11:10-13 in Messiah’s glorious reign. It needs to be added and noted that Ephraim, together with its companion tribes in the north, did not submit to David’s kingly authority until seven years after he began to reign over Judah as explained in 2 Samuel chapters 2 and 3. This leads us to conclude that the north/south divide in Old Testament history was a seriously long standing fault line in the tectonic plates of the life of the hebrew people through the centuries.
Signs of rivalry and envy between Ephraim and Judah (Isaiah 11:13) became increasingly evident during the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon. There was also a tendency, sometimes slight and sometimes high profile, to reckon the two tribes and the ten tribes apart. Moreover, we see a readiness on the part of the latter to join rebellious movements (2 Samuel 15 -20) which reached the culminating point in the breakaway under Jeroboam after Rehoboam’s catastrophic succession to the throne after Solomon. In the prophet’s writings, the northern kingdom of Israel is often referred to as “the house of Joseph” or simply as “Ephraim,” the name of the leading tribe representing the whole ten-tribed nation.
Getting back to the sustained motivation of the national split, Jeroboam, up north, was desperately eager to keep his hold on the people of the now: “Ten tribes of Israel”. However, he lived with the fear that he could lose his kingdom if the masses were to go two or three times a year to the annual feasts in Jerusalem. He thought that old associations with the established religious form, as well as the associations of old friends might overpower and strangle their new-born loyalty to him as their king and ruler. For that sole reason he decided to set up the “worship of Yahweh” in his own kingdom, and built two temple shrines – one at Dan, in the extreme north of the Promised Land and the other at Bethel, in the extreme south of the newly founded kingdom. Playing on people’s ignorance and vulnerability to religiosity with a bit of pomp and ceremony, in both these places he had installed a golden calf, that “the God of Israel might be worshipped under the form of a bull that eats hay.” Don’t laugh! This man was serious to the point of life or death. The repercussions of this action were so profound that it is impossible to overrate the destructive power it released into the northern society. Ir seeped insipient death for the couple of centuries that the northern kingdom existed.
To say it clearly and plainly, this sin perpetrated by this rebel king trod underfoot the second commandment of Moses – which forbade the children of Israel to make any graven image or to bow down before the likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath. Such weak and sinful bids for popularity are never forgotten throughout Holy Scripture, be it the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.
Reading through Israel’s history in the generations that followed, like a demonic mantra from hell we read of many kings and people that committed sins and crimes that followed “the sins with which Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, made Israel to sin.” The northern state of Israel lasted no longer than 208 years and then almost the entire population of the “nation” were scattered around the Middle East – and some think even the Far East and were never heard of again. Thus, we have the factual legend of “The Lost Tribes of Israel.”
A man must reap what he sows. The revolution instigated by Jeroboam came back on his head, and upon the heads of the so-called northern Hebrew nation state. Having sown to the wind, history shows how the people reaped the whirlwind. Revolutions in Israel occurred time and again and were marinated in betrayal, murder, and bloodshed.
So, stealing a pretentious throne in the year 930 BC, Jeroboam the son of Nebat reigned 21 years or so and the scripture states that, “The Lord struck him and he died”. Piecing together the texts of 2 Chronicles 13 and 1 Kings 14, it seems his was a slow death.
He was succeeded by Nadab his son. He lasted only a year. It seems that his soldiers did not approve of his battle strategy, and while besieging a Philistine fortress, a man named Baasha, one of his own people of the tribe of Issachar, killed him (1 Kings 15:25-28).
So; it is still 908 BC – 22 years since the revolution, and three kings have ruled Ephraim. Baasha lasted 23 years, and made a city called Tirzah his capital.
He died and his son Elah inherited the troublesome idolatrous state. Elah it seems had a serious drink problem. A problem that turned fatal. A legendary traitor called Zimri killed Elah whilst the king was in a drunken stupour. Zimri lasted seven days and then seemingly committed suicide by burning down a building while he was in it. There was certainly something rotten in the state of Israel. After Zimri’s death rebellious divisive people of the northern kingdom had a divisive and rebellious split. The populace of the ten tribes the were hideously divided into two factions. One half chose a mighty warrior called Omri. The other half wanted a man called Tibni to be king. It was probably some dispute over tribal pre-eminence, but the truth is somewhat obscured. The two leaders and their forces fought each other for several years until Omri’s forces prevailed and Tibni was killed along with his supporting brother. It therefore appears that Tibni was regent over half the kingdom of Israel for a period of four years. Tibni’s death is written in the Hebrew Bible but not detailed nor explained. Omri’s reign is recorded as having started in 881 BC. First Kings 16:28 tells us that he died and was succeeded by his son Ahab. That was 873 BC. Ahab, who was married to Jezebel, became king in 873. Ahab’s reign was 21 years. Ahab’s reign started 57 years after Solomon’s death and died 74 years after Solomon’s death. This means that Elijah’s sudden appearance in 1 Kings 17:1 took place at the very least 57 years after Solomon’s death, and at the very latest 74 years.
Those 57 plus years were truly dark days becoming ever darker as Jezebel settled in her new territory. After the fall outs, the splits and much blood spilling, the kingdom passed into the hands of a cunning idolatrous female witch of a human being. She was the strong one in the royal marriage. Ahab, the scripture declares “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Did I tell you how dark these days were?
I have to expand and explain, however, that Ahab’s actions that provoked Yahweh’s anger came about not strictly because his character was more depraved and evilly motivated, but much more because he was insipidly submissive and subjected to a crafty, unscrupulous, and cruel woman filled with hate and stinging selfishness. This woman was so bad that in western society her name is used as a synonym to any woman of bad character. We are talking about Jezebel. Digressing for a moment, I could write a lengthy tome showing how some of the worst crimes that have ever been committed have been wrought by weak men at the instigation of worse – but stronger – spirits than themselves. Ah! We move on.
When youthful Jezebel left the extravagant palace of Tyre to become the consort of Ahab, the newly-crowned king of Israel, it was no doubt regarded as a splendid match. The Royal wedding of the year. At this period of time and within the bookends of this generation Tyre really was the queen upon the Mediterranean in the zenith of her glory. Her colonies dotted the shores of the Great sea as far as the Spanish harbours. Her trading vessels were seen on every known sea and even ventured to the coasts of our own Cornwall for tin. Marrying a princess of Tyre seriously meant that Ahab was punching far above his own weight. Socially and royally, Jezebel was of a different class. It would seem that As Jezebel left her home for Israel, she actually took with her a considerable number of Baal worshipping priests who would have influenced her religious outlook strongly, and who, therefore, would have exercised an irresistible spell over her – to do her utmost to introduce into Israel the hideous and cruel rites of her hereditary religion.
Jezebel was a veritable apostle of Baal worship while married to Ahab. First, she seems to have erected a temple to Astarte in the neighbourhood of Jezreel. That old divine FB Meyer likens the people and social structure of Jezreel at the time to be paralleled with the image of Windsor in the UK. Jezebel financially supported her 450 priests. Ahab and Jezebel also built a temple for Baal in Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel at that time. Shrines and temples then began to rise in all parts of the land in honour of these idolatrous false deities, while the altars of Jehovah, like that at Carmel, were ruthlessly broken down. The land literally swarmed with the priests of Baal and of the high placed groves. The institution of, and the priestly hierarchy that came with Baal worship reveling in their sudden rise to power, were ambitiously licentious, and morally debased. The fires of persecution were lit and began to burn with furious intolerance towards anything or anybody that fell short of pure Baal worship. As one writer puts it: “The schools of the prophets were shut up, as grass grew in their courts.” The prophets of the schools ran away into hiding. The darkness was that of a terrible midnight of terror to righteous God-fearing people. The whole land seemed to be silently submitted to the apostasy instigated by Jezebel and weakly allowed by Ahab. Of all the population of Israel, only seven thousand remained who had not bowed the knee to Baal. They were so paralysed with fear they kept so still and quiet that their very existence was unknown even by Elijah in the hour of his greatest loneliness.
And so, in the midst of this political and spiritual anarchy we arrive at 1 Kings 17 and the first verse. One can easily perceive how it was that Elijah appeared in Israel at a most crucial time. Jezebel imported her idolatrous lifestyle and “foreign god” to Israel. Her influence was very great not merely over her husband, but throughout the kingdom, and as a result, the worship of Baal, the god of the Phoenicians, spread with ever greater force, and was the cause of much trouble that befell the people of Israel.
Then -one day the man known as Elijah the Tishbite appeared before Ahab the king – not Jezebel and confronted him with an extremely brief “state of the Nation” speech. And …
… Ah! But that is for the next time.