God rarely repeats a story, but after the Exodus, just about every story God tells echoes. Just about everyone who grew up hearing the King James Bible preached will be able to recite the phrase “still, small voice” (still the best translation of 1 Kings 19:12), but fewer people remember why God was appearing to Elijah on the mount of Moses in the first place. Certainly this was an occasion of comfort that Elijah needed–on the run from the agents of Jezebel after the rout of the prophets of Ba’al, Elijah had become convinced that he was the only faithful one left in the northern kingdom of Israel. He feared, rightly, that a Punic queen who snuffed out his life would in the same stroke destroy the last one who openly would tell Israel of YHWH’s demands for absolute and exclusive worship. When God reveals the seven thousand faithful, it comes as a surprise both to Elijah and to the reader.
But the comfort is not the sum total of the message: Elijah has three very particular tasks put before him: he must anoint a new king of Damascus, likewise anoint a new king of Samaria, and anoint his own successor. Along with the echoes of the Moses story, YHWH here is putting Elijah into a retelling of the story of Samuel, only this time the stakes are even higher than when Samuel ventured forth under divine pretense to find a new king in the days of Saul. As a sign of the far-ranging authority and designs of YHWH, Elijah is to go first not even to any of the twelve tribes liberated from Egypt but to the Arameans, some of Israel’s oldest enemies, to name a new king. Rightfully speaking, Elijah is going into a place where he has no business meddling: he speaks in behalf of a God who did not rescue Syria from Egypt, who has not given Syria any Torah to speak of. Yet YHWH sends Elijah.
Likewise the errand to Israel stands as nonsense, though in this case it’s not new nonsense. Ahab lives, and Jezebel rages, yet Elijah is to anoint Jehu, the slayer of apostates, as the new king. And while he’s at it, since he’s going about naming successors to kings who haven’t died yet, he should probably name his own successor.
In short, the encounter with God in the wilderness happens so that Elijah can speak the word of God in the cities. The still, small voice comes to reassure the prophet that his own treasonous voice will in fact be the voice of God to the nations. Elijah’s life is spared by flight and by provision of food only so that he can name the one who will go on when he no longer walks the earth. All of these things are parts of the prophet’s life, and the comfort is no more intelligible without the mission than the mission would be intelligible without the divine favor. Such a rhythm of seclusion and proclamation, of rest and commission, is the shape of the story of the faithful from old times, and it continues both through the life and ministry of Jesus and on into the Christian era.
Thus stands my brief argument for the gathering of the faithful on the day of the Resurrection and the prudent preference not to gather too often the rest of the week.
May our own encounters with the God whose voice is silence send us forth boldly to proclaim all that the nations need to hear from God.