Running before Ahab’s Chariot

From the Pastor’s Study  (3/27/22)

The Bible is a timeless book, as helpful to people today as for those who lived when it was first penned.  (Rom. 15:4; I Cor 10:11) However, because the culture in Bible times was much different than in our own, some passages of Scripture can be difficult to understand.  The Bible refers to anointing with oil, girding up loins, fanning grain, reclining at meals, rending garments, putting on ashes, etc.  A biblical narrative may describe something that was very familiar to the inspired author, but may be a little ambiguous to modern readers unfamiliar with ancient customs. 

I Kings 18:46 contains such a cultural expression.  Following his dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, Elijah prays for rain.  A punishing three-and-a-half-year draught ends as rain finally returns to Israel.  Then, as the rain fell, and King Ahab rode in his chariot to Jezreel, Elijah the prophet ran before him.  What does this mean?  It does not mean that God performed another miracle by endowing Elijah with supernatural speed enabling him to outrun the fleetest of horse-drawn chariots.  But this incident does teach an important, timeless lesson.

Three other times in the Old Testament we read of men running before chariots bearing royalty.  (I Sam. 8:11; II Sam. 15:1; I Kgs. 1:5) None of these cases involved a miracle.  In each instance, running before a chariot was understood as a display of authority or royal majesty on the part of the one riding in the chariot, as well as an expression of loyalty on the part of the runners. 

By running before Ahab’s chariot, Elijah was demonstrating loyalty to the king of Israel.  It was important that he do so for several reasons:

First, Elijah, as God’s prophet, publicly rebuked Ahab’s sin (18:18).  His prayer for the rain to stop brought great suffering to Ahab’s kingdom.  Elijah called down fire from heaven.  He slew the prophets of Baal.  He prayed for the draught to end.  But Elijah wanted to be clear: this was not a political revolution.  He wanted repentance and a spiritual revival.  He did not intend to overthrow the king.

Second, although Ahab was chastened by the events on Mt. Carmel, Elijah’s purpose was not to strip the king of his authority or to create civil disrespect among the people.  Nor was it his purpose to promote himself.  Running before the chariot was a recognition of the king’s authority. 

Third, running before Ahab’s chariot declared that true religion and the law of God are no threat to good government.  On the contrary, good government needs religion.  Israel was a theocracy.  The people of Israel had a covenant with God.  Israel’s king was actually God’s sub-regent, ruling under God.  Ahab needed to repent of his sin and rule in righteousness.  If he did, he would experience God’s blessing and the support of the prophets.

As I travel about the state in which I live, it is not unusual to see a yard sign or a flag on a pole boldly proclaiming, “My governor is an idiot!”  Whatever a citizen may think of the character, policies, or judgment of elected officials, the Christian ought to consider carefully the propriety of employing abusive language or otherwise showing disrespect toward those holding governmental authority.  In the New Testament, the apostle Paul asserted his legal rights when he was treated unlawfully.  (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11) However, even when he was treated unjustly, he recognized that speaking evil of authority figures was wrong in the sight of God.  (Acts 23:1-5)

The fact that “the hand of the Lord was upon Elijah” that does not necessarily mean that he was endued with the miraculous power to run fast.   It may simply be that God directed Elijah to display loyalty to Ahab in spite of his personal opinion about this violent and idolatrous king. 

There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with human authorities.  Citizens in a democratic republic may petition the government, campaign for opposing candidates, or even run for office.  But the child of God, in every age, culture, and country, should render honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7) – just like the prophet Elijah.