‘Go back’

“Then a voice said to him, ‘“What are you doing here, Elijah?’

“He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’

“The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came . . . ‘” (1 Kings 19:13-15) 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

It’s become kind of a cottage industry. Or like Hallmark cards, a sentiment for every occasion. Every noteworthy event generates a slew of articles entitled What should a Christian do about ____, or What the Bible says about ____.

I’m probably going to step on some toes by saying so, but when I see that kind of boilerplate in the title, I’m turning to—or now, probably clicking through to—the cartoons or even the weather. I don’t want to read articles like that.

But as I was reading earlier this evening about recent events at the U.S. Capitol I started to wonder if I needed to read this kind of article. And after a few moments I realized the answer was no.

I have a reflexive aversion to bromides and pat answers, so I know that has something to do with my conclusion. Back in the antediluvian printed word days, you used to consult a roster of topics with appropriate corresponding Bible verses in some hefty Bible handbook. Now I’m sure there are dozens of apps that can provide near-instant answers on your phone or tablet. Still not interested.

But as I continued to think about it I realized that timely, genuine biblical wisdom sounds deceptively simple sometimes. It’s just that arming yourself with Scripture to watch, listen to or read the news isn’t always intuitively obvious.

Here are three for starters that will get you a lot more mileage in discerning the times than most realize:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10).

“Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who find great delight in his commands.

“They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.

“Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes” (Ps 112: 1, 7-8).

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7).

Yes, I know, none of these sounds topically appropriate. But in fact they all are, because they speak of the relationship that governs everything: your walk with God.

When the Bible declares that “the righteous one will live by his faith” (Hab 2:4 NASB), there’s an implicit understanding that we are a people that are being led. We take our cue and getting our marching orders by hearing from God. (Or not, in which case we should sit tight for the moment.)

That it why the psalmist stressed that “today, if you hear his voice” that you “do not harden your hearts.”

Moses reminded the people on the threshold of entering the Promised Land to “remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”

And why? “To teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:1-3). 

But every word does not mean a word for every occasion. Often we are met with silence, which may simply mean continuing in the word you already have.

On Mount Carmel, the prophet Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal and witnessed an extraordinary display of God’s power to win the day. The adrenaline must have flooded his system when he heard the formerly silent people cry out, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (1 Ki 18:39).

And then, like the shifting wind, Jezebel vowed to liquidate Elijah—and he ran for his life. All the way to the wilderness, and then another forty days to Horeb, “the mountain of God.”

And then, like the Captain said in Cool Hand Luke, what God and Elijah had there was failure to communicate.

It really started when Elijah was intimidated by the voice of Jezebel threatening to kill him. It was paying attention to that word that made him run away.

God asks Elijah twice, “What are you doing here?”

The question is in the present tense; What are you doing here—right now?  Elijah’s answer is in the past tense.

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Ki 19:10).

If he had listened to every word instead of another word, there would have been no problem. God’s question would have been unnecessary. He wouldn’t have been exhausted and fearful.

And so, to correct him, God simply said, “Go back” (1 Ki 19:15-18).

It wasn’t true, as Elijah claimed, that he was “the only one left” that wasn’t apostate. The Lord said there were still seven thousand “whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” But you won’t see that if you’re running in the other direction.

There were two kings to anoint, and Elisha to succeed him as prophet. There was ministry to be done. But when self-preservation is your sole concern, you have no room in your imagination for that to be true. Which is why the word of the Lord had to come to him a second time.

You know the story, I’m sure. The Lord wasn’t in the violent wind, the earthquake or the fire. At Mount Carmel God was in the pyrotechnics. But not always, and not now. He spoke in “a gentle whisper” (or still, small voice).

And the word was, Turn around. Go back. Pick up where you left off and got diverted. Run the race set before you. Fix your eyes on Him.

There are times when every word may be one word. But like the manna, it’s enough for today.

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