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Prophet of Courage
Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 1: Faithful Prophets
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 28, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: 1 Kings 18:5-18
Key Verse: 1 King 18:18
- Tell what happened during the meetings between Elijah and Obadiah, then between Elijah and Ahab.
- Explain a purpose of a prophet’s ministry as it confronted the righteous and the wicked.
- Write a message of encouragement to someone whose ministry requires a special measure of courage.
In the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” all the cowardly lion had to do to find the courage he wanted was to receive a medal from the wizard. It was inscribed with the word “Courage.” If courage were only that easy!
As a number of us are aware, some of the most courageous individuals anyone could ever encounter are the prophets of the Old Testament. One of these is vividly seen in today’s lesson. He is Elijah, a man who was used by God to confront one of Israel’s most wicked kings, Ahab, and his ruthless wife, Jezebel. The times demanded a person would not back down in the face of bold defiance of the true God of Israel, and Elijah was that man. However, Elijah’s courage did not come from a medal but from the Lord himself.
We are told that today’s lesson scripture covers the early portion of the ministry of the prophet Elijah (who prophesied about 869-838 BC). He proclaimed the word of the Lord during one of the most critical periods of Old Testament history. His ministry began after the split of the nation into two kingdoms (931 BC): Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom).
The first king of the north, Jeroboam I (931-910 BC), began his reign by violating the first two of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-4). He set up two golden calves for the people to worship: one in the northern part of the northern kingdom, Dan, and one in the southern part, in Bethel (I Kings 12:28,29). Thus it was easier for those in the north to embrace pagan worship.
Now, the reign of King Ahab in northern Israel (874-953 BC) was characterized by economic prosperity, at least at the outset. It was also a time of spiritual poverty. And idol worship became more widely accepted when Ahab married Jezebel. Jezebel was the daughter of the king of Sidon and a devout worshiper of the god Baal (I Kings 16:31; 18:19). Baal was a fertility god, believed to be in control of anything to do with giving life, whether to animals, plants, or human beings.
To say the least, wicked king Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, provoked the Lord with their aggressive idolatry. Suddenly, it was that Elijah responded by calling down a famine on the land. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah boldly proclaims to Ahab that “there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (17:1). Moses had warned God’s people of the abomination that idolatry constituted in the sight of God (Deuteronomy 4:15-24). And famine was listed among the curses that would result from disobeying God’s law (Deuteronomy 28:23-24).
Important to note! A declaration of famine amounted to a grave insult to Baal (and to Ahab and Jezebel) and constituted a direct challenge to the authority of that fictitious god.
Following this announcement of a famine, Elijah himself fled to the brook Cherith where God miraculously had ravens bring him food. Continuing to hide, he traveled northward to Zarephath of Sidon (Jezebel’s homeland). There he stayed with a widow, for whom he offered two unforgettable demonstrations of God’s power. First, Elijah supplied food during the famine and second, he raised up her dead son. Both miracles revealed the Lord’s authority in matters of fertility, where Baal was believed to be in control.
At this point, Elijah was ready to go back to the northern kingdom, as he was spiritually prepared to speak and demonstrate God’s authoritative word to a defiant and disobedient king named Ahab.
Ahab and Obadiah
1 Kings 18:5-6
The name Obadiah is used of some 12 different men in the Old Testament and is also the name of an Old Testament book. This particular Obadiah is first mentioned in the biblical record in First Kings 18:3, where he is described as Ahab’s “palace administrator.” This is the ancient Israelite equivalent of the chief of staff in the United States White House and was a powerful and prestigious position. Thus, Obadiah was in charge of Ahab’s palace in Samaria (capital of the northern kingdom of Israel) and assisted in the administration of official matters.
In addition, Obadiah was a man of remarkable courage, given the position he held and the faith he embraced. He is described as a man who “was a devout believer in the Lord” (1 Kings 18:3), and his name means “servant/worshiper of the Lord.” And Obadiah’s faith was not a private matter. Consequently, he must have been savvy in how he exercised it with the devotion of Ahab and Jezebel to Baal. When Jezebel tried to have all the prophets of the Lord killed off, Obadiah hid 100 of them and sustained them with food and water. Hence, Obadiah is seen as an instrument of God, even though he is also a trusted official in Ahab’s government.
The severity of the famine in the capital forced Ahab to act. His first priority, it seemed, was the care of his “horses and mules” – that is, animals used for the convenience of military personnel, nobles, and members of the royal family. Famine and drought were in the land, but king Ahab was concerned, not about his people, but about the stables. The prophets of the Lord were being killed off (v.4), but Ahab was more concerned about his animals being killed off. So he summoned Obadiah to assist him in looking for fodder and water, the two of them divided the country between them (v.6).
Elijah and Obadiah
1 Kings 18:7-15
On his way, Obadiah meets Elijah, whom he recognizes, but is surprised to see. Obadiah’s question reflects some measure of doubt that this is really Elijah that he is seeing at all. However, addressing Elijah as “my lord” reflects the reverence with which Obadiah holds the prophet as God’s messenger. This title does not imply deity.
Elijah confirms that he himself is speaking to Obadiah as part of a command to return to Ahab. Although Obadiah had called Elijah “lord,” Elijah implies that Obadiah has actually been serving his “master” Ahab. This may be a subtle dig or an outright test of Obadiah.
In verse 9, Obadiah assumes that if Elijah were asking him to put his life on the line, it must be to punish him for particular sin he had committed (compare 1 Kings 18:12). Evidently Obadiah’s thinking is similar to that of the widow in Zarephath, who accused Elijah of punishing her sin by taking her son from her (17:18). Calling himself Elijah’s “servant” rejects the idea that “Ahab” has Obadiah’s true allegiance. Thus, Obadiah distances himself from any implied sin, especially idolatry, that could result from serving Ahab in any capacity.
At any rate, Obadiah anticipates Ahab’s reaction to Elijah’s message. For Obadiah to leave Elijah alone in order to travel to Ahab would no doubt anger the king. The same king who had stood by as his wife killed God’s prophets. Point? Would Ahab suspect that Obadiah was a supporter of Elijah and a worshiper of Elijah’s God?
In contrast to the prophet who feared this task would leave him dead, “the Lord…lives” (see 1 Kings 18:15). The promises of Obadiah and Elijah were made before God. This made both men as true prophets. They serve the living God, not idols or fictitious, powerless gods (1 Kings 18:26-29, not in printed text).
We need not assume that there was not literally “a nation or kingdom” that Ahab didn’t question about Elijah’s whereabouts. Obadiah is simply referring to the intensity of Ahab’s search for the prophet. What does the intensity of our search for Jesus say about us?
Along that line, the late Leslie Weatherhead tells of a man who on his deathbed was confronted by his minister with the fact of God and of the need of giving himself over into God’s hands. The man rather irritably mumbled, “I never had time for that sort of thing.”
Weatherhead’s comment was that he had 3,000 Sundays. Once more, what does the intensity of our search for Jesus say about us?
Back to our scripture lesson! If Ahab heard from Obadiah that he had met “Elijah” without arresting him, the king would be infuriated. This implication would be that Obadiah is lying to the king – something that one just doesn’t do.
At any rate, Obadiah has concluded that he will pay with his life as the Spirit whisks Elijah away. We often think of the Spirit’s work in the prophet’s lives in terms of their speech and writing. However, Obadiah is more concerned with the Spirit’s ability to move or hide a person supernaturally, as he had done with Enoch (Genesis 5:24).
Obadiah knew something of how prophets “of the Lord” operated in obedience to him. And though Elijah certainly intends to appear before Ahab, it would only happen if God allows it. In fact, however, God has commanded it (1 Kings 18:1,2, not in our printed text).
It’s here (v.12b-13) that Obadiah begins a defense of his personal character and devotion to “the Lord” as a reason why his life should not now be put in danger. He has lived up to the meaning of his name, “servant, worshiper of the Lord.” In reality, he’s grown up from his youth fearing God, a sign of wisdom. And Obadiah’s saving actions on behalf of those 100 prophets has proven his fear of the Lord.
In verse 14, Obadiah repeats the danger that Elijah was putting him in. In verse 15, Elijah expands on Obadiah’s oath (18:10): not only does God live, but he is “the Lord Almighty.” This is a warrior image of God, leading the heavenly angels in battle against evil. The title called Obadiah’s attention to God’s power, not just his presence.
And the words “whom I serve” suggests the close relationship between God and Elijah. As God’s spokesperson, Elijah stands ready to go, speak, and do whatever his commander asks or desires.
Elijah and Ahab
1 Kings 18:16-18
Evidently, Elijah’s word and oath satisfied any doubts that Obadiah may have had about Elijah’s returning with him. Consequently, this would be the first time King Ahab and Elijah met face-to-face following the three-and-a-half-year famine that had devastated the entire northern kingdom of Israel.
Elijah finally confronts Ahab, who immediately accuses him of being “the troubler of Israel.” The Hebrew word for “troubler” suggests someone whose actions or presence is destructive to others. So, Ahab’s charge is that Elijah is an unsavory influence in Israel. However, Ahab does not spell out the charge.
At any case, Ahab’s words reflect the utter contempt in which he held prophets like Elijah. And this disdain was based on the bad reports prophets frequently brought him (example 22:8).
But in a sense, Ahab was right. Any true prophet of the Lord will trouble people when he or she confronts them with the truth about their sinfulness and their need to repent. Ahab was justified in accusing Elijah of being the cause of the famine of the past three-and-a-half years (James 5:17). However, Ahab’s larger point is totally in error. God’s judgment would not have occurred had Israel remained faithful to God alone (1 Kings 18:18).
Writing in her book “Old Testament Prophets For Today,” Carolyn J. Sharp, Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School, states, “When we are smug, inattentive, or narcissistic, the prophets will disrupt us. The prophets disrupt the ways in which we justify our heartlessness to each other and our half-heartedness toward God. For the prophets are satisfied only with a deep and complete commitment to knowing God and to serving God’s people in the world.”
In verse 18, Elijah does not back down in the face of King Ahab’s anger. Elijah replies that it is Ahab himself who has troubled Israel by following his father’s idolatrous ways, specifically, by following “the Baals – a reference to various local manifestations of the Canaanite deity. The decisions of Ahab as king adversely affected his people’s fate.
And it wasn’t long after Ahab and Elijah’s meeting both the king and the people saw a clear demonstration of the importance of idolatry and the power of Elijah’s God at the contest on Mount Carmel. Even that, however, did not convince Ahab to change his evil practices, though he did repent late in life (21:27). Ahab is still remembered primarily for all the trouble he caused Israel.
Courage has always been the trademark of God’s spokespeople. Like Elijah, these prophets continuously proclaimed courageously and lead faithfully according to God’s word. And also, like Elijah, these prophets were considered troublemakers.
As you know, in many parts of the world today, an increased measure of courage is required to preach and teach the gospel. Defiant authorities in numerous countries like China or Sudan consider followers of Jesus to be modern troublemakers. And such leaders work hard to silence missionary voices. Literally, all over the world, Christian refugees seek new homes in nations that will welcome them in peace.
So let us pray together for these faithful servants of God, that they may be restored, strengthened, settled, and empowered with the courage that has always characterized God’s people in an often hostile world.
Resources for this lesson
- What are some ways Christians can reassure one another in times of fear or doubt?
- When condemned or mocked for following God’s Word, how should you respond? Should your response be the same in all situations? Why, or why not?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 257-264.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume III,” pages 130-135.
- “Old Testament Prophets for Today,” by Carol J. Sharp, pages 15-18.