I don’t feel very good at the moment. Its been a while since I’ve felt contentment in any deep way. These are challenging times; although the roses in our garden are now blooming gloriously, I really can’t bring myself to spend hours with the ‘Colouring book of Gardens for Grown ups’. Truly, there is much comfort to be drawn from scripture. ‘This is the Day the LORD has made!’ ‘Rejoice in the Lord always! And again I say, rejoice!’ But right now, stronger meat is required.
1 Kings 18:1-19
At the start of 1 Kings 18, we read, ‘After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria.’
Elijah is the enduring hero of this section of scripture. And what a hero he is, as becomes plain from the New Testament gospel accounts. Some wondered if John the Baptist was Elijah1, mysteriously returned from the grave (see Mark 6:15) and Jesus agreed with them (Matthew 11:14). Yet John himself denied that he was Elijah- which makes sense when we recall that the contemporary view would have held Elijah as the ‘star of the show’ in the book of 1 Kings. John’s mission to modestly point to Jesus as the Christ will not allow such a bold admission. John is the last prophet pointing to Jesus, but Elijah is the chosen representative of all the prophets; which is why he and Moses are seen by Peter, James and John when Jesus is spectacularly transfigured in Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8 and Luke 9:28–36.
Old Testament prophets generally had a hard time of it, as it was their job to troubleshoot, especially at senior management level. Senior managers don’t like criticism, as a rule, and King Ahab was certainly no exception. His wife Jezebel took even less kindly to prophetic denunciation. Our text goes on to say that Jezebel ‘cut off’ the prophets of the Lord, which barely meets the definitions of either metaphor or euphemism. It is also true that the prophets were as often found dealing with the misbehaviour of the people of God, since misbehaviour is not, in fact, only a sport for the elites. And if they weren’t doing that, then God had them pulling back the curtains and shouting rebukes at the neighbouring countries and their corrupt leaders. If anyone received a compliment from a prophet, you were having a good day. But that was Elijah’s exceptional calling. He was God’s special man, so he had to put up with the hardships of the job description. God looks after his special prophets. So I’m told.
For everyone else, life in Israel was pretty miserable. Elijah was hunkered down in Sidon, far away from the challenging situation in the land of Promise, eating endless chapattis at the house of the widow of Zarephath, praying and practising his miracle working. Back home, under the wicked rule of Ahab and Jezebel, the common people were having a really hard time. The fields are barren, their animals are dead or dying, the rivers are now mere streams at best- all because there has been no rain for more than three years. According to the local newspaper, this is because God is bringing judgement on the royal household, but the people really don’t care anymore. Their old and young must be starving, diseased and dying. Their prospects are bleak.
Pity Obadiah. Like many others2 in the Jewish scriptures, this man was thus named ‘servant [or] worshipper of Yahweh’ by his parents, but his misfortune was to be employed as the manager and director of the royal household. I suspect that ‘servant’ was a more appropriate term. There are many Obadiahs in scripture, and we know nothing much about any of them, including the later prophet who has a very brief book to himself. Obadiahs are Mr Normal, the equivalent of James Smith in England. It was his lot to keep Ahab and Jezebel happy- an impossible brief. We can only guess at what it must have been like to work for this despotic couple.
Yet Obadiah was not Mr Average- he had stuck his neck out and done some pretty amazing things, despite the peril this would have placed him in- he and his family. We are told that Obadiah had acted swiftly and decisively to protect many of the lesser prophets in the land of Israel when Queen Jezebel started her murderous rampage. The events in that story are not told to us, but from this tidbit we are at once given a window into what kind of a man Obadiah was. Quite the kind of person a more professional and dignified senior leader would certainly seek out to charge with wide ranging responsibilities as their MD or CEO. He hid something like one hundred spiritual leaders in caves and organised the regular delivery of food and water to them, it seems for a considerable period of time- perhaps even for as long as Elijah had been out of the country. You can bet that Jezebel would have been sniffing around for any sign of these missing prophetic leaders- yet Obadiah has managed to conceal them from her, while working as her senior office help- from right under her very nose!
I think that Ahab and Jezebel knew there was something about this holy man. They could smell his integrity, and it was an odour that didn’t quite agree with them (2 Cor 2:16). It was likely, they speculated, that Obadiah knew where the missing prophets were hiding. He knew where Elijah was, and the others. But they could not catch him out. He was too clever, too artful. You know I can’t possibly know what he looked like, but I bet he had thick curly hair like a freshly washed sheep, milky dove-white teeth smiling from a soft face and deep brown eyes that would meet your gaze and look steadily back at you; like a serpent sizing up what might make its next meal. I don’t mean to alarm you- even a snake’s got to eat. But know this: when the text says that Obadiah ‘feared the Lord greatly’, that means that he wasn’t stupid.
5 And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” 6 So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.
‘Manager and Overseer of the Royal Household’ ‘Obadiah, servant of God and chief servant to their Royal Majesties.’ And a fancy logo. All the things you might envy on a business card. But when Obadiah gets up in the morning; and you bet its early, every day, there is a long and highly unglamorous job list to attend to. There won’t be any pleasant surprises on the list- because it was the last thing you wrote before you shut the office the night before. Work, work, work. Sure, there will be people under you, lots of them in Obadiah’s case I guess. But its his job to make sure everything gets done, and in the third year of an unrelenting drought, for any country with an agrarian economy, that is going to be a monstrous task. The level of creativity that would be demanded to maintain all the services King Ahab expected would have tested the most competent executives to breaking point. Its not a weekly task for Lord Sugar or his latest batch of wanna-be apprentices. Every day of consumption that goes by, there is less remaining. Long term efficiency of operation is about sustainability, and that is the very thing that is impossible. What is the effect on the morale of the work force when the ability to deliver day by day is hampered by increasing shortage- no cash flow. Can’t pay last week’s bills? No, you can’t have any more credit. Sorry, the supply business is shut because of the famine. They just can’t trade any more. And you can bet that Ahab drove his servants to bullying and theft, with menaces3. You don’t want to mess with Ahab. Would you like a personal audience with the Queen?
For decades in the UK we’ve been struggling with the challenges of having been the first nation to have steam railways. Now everything needs to be faster and bigger and especially cleaner, so we need new transport infrastructure. That means knocking things down and digging other things up. Planning, consultation, compensation, legals. Tendering, public enquiries, government bills – all that tiresome stuff. And all the while the number of zeroes on the bill to be paid from the public purse is going up. So we can keep up with Japan and France and all the Jones’s with some nice shiny new electric trains to rebalance the business structure of the country, north and south. We’d just signed off on a third runway at Heathrow, and a few short months later, in the middle of lockdown, British Airways are shutting down their entire operation at Gatwick. If you are lucky enough to have a car so you can now get to your workplace for essential reasons, you can avoid the need to use the vastly curtailed public bus and rail services, and so reduce the chances of catching and spreading the coronavirus. At least the trucks are delivering the goods we need to our local shops in a timely manner.
All this makes Obadiah’s daily to-do list jump off the page. This paragraph is not half as bland as it first appears. There have been all sorts of cuts and ‘rationalisations’ in the royal household since the effects of the famine started to bite. Downsizing, furloughing staff and all that business jazz. The regular folk have sold or eaten their scrawny animals, because they eat too much. We’ll just have to eat plain chapattis for dinner. But not Ahab. Whatever else bites the dust during these ‘testing times’, you stay out of my stables. They’re not just horses. He’s got a whole garage full of prize stallions, and all the other sorts of four legged vehicles that are ‘indispensable’ for his luxurious lifestyle. Jezebel is certainly not going to walk to the hairdressers. Obadiah is sent a message by courier mid-morning: ‘Queen Jezebel wants the open top chariot outside the front door in an hour- the white one. She says she won’t spend another minute in this dusty palace. And don’t forget the second coat of polish!’
Back in the day, before trucks and trains, international freight and the internet, the economy relied on manual labour and millions of domesticated animals. But you can forget the falling price of fuel in lockdown- if the horses and mules don’t get fed and watered, you’ve lost your transport infrastructure, and the size of your kingdom is necessarily shrunk permanently. No more strawberries from Spain, leeks from Lebanon or cereals from Syria. At least the artichokes are local. Without mules, we can’t pull the carts on roaming journeys around the country to ‘tax’ the locals. Obadiah gently explains it to Ahab at the board meeting. ‘Master, we have to take the animals out to get water and pasture- the budget won’t stretch to having the water and hay brought in by cart any longer. We have to change how we do things now.’ Obadiah has to be delicate. He can’t tell Ahab how obtuse he is being. He’d be thrown from the palace roof.
As I suggested earlier, I think Obadiah is being watched all the time. When they first start taking the animals out for water and food, they all go together. Ahab won’t countenance giving his boys the keys to his Ferrari, and he won’t have the slaves riding his precious stallions around the countryside when he isn’t looking. And Obadiah is always appealing that he has too many management meetings whenever Jezebel summons court to meet the priests of Baal for the daily offering. Is that really necessary? What is he up to? So they all take their permitted daily exercise with the animals. But as the pastures near the palace are exhausted, they have to take longer and longer journeys, and there still isn’t enough food or water. ‘Master, we must divide the feeding party into two so we don’t lose any more animals.’ A week later, the king comes into the boardroom full of bluster, announcing this ‘new idea’ that he thought of ‘after long consideration.’ Obadiah looks down at the table, but murmurs his approval. Ahab can’t trust anyone else, so he puts Obadiah in charge of the second group. This is what the text means when it says that both Ahab and Obadiah went in different directions, each ‘by himself.’
Remember that 1 Kings 18 supplies us with two facts about Obadiah. Number one: He was overseer of Ahab’s household. Number two, right on the heels of number one: He feared the LORD greatly. We have explored the implications of the first in depth. We might wonder at the reason for highlighting the second at this juncture. Isn’t it a distraction from the main point at issue? God has said that it is time to break the drought. There will now be rain! Jehovah chose to use his special servant, the prophet Elijah, to declare the start of the drought, who announced this in Yahweh-God’s covenant Name to the godless king Ahab, so there would be no doubt about the chain of cause and effect in Ahab’s mind. In the same way, Yahweh God of Israel wants Ahab and Jezebel to be in no doubt as to Who is responsible for bringing the drought to an end. This is no accident of climate variation. Such a fudging of the facts will not be tolerated. God’s version of events is going to be published and widely broadcast, and then the rain will come straightway. So God sends his prophet Elijah straight to Ahab. Well and good.
But God has arranged another appointment for Elijah. God has another plan- which means the involvement of another person! I hope you noticed that I led you a little astray. It is certainly true that Elijah is an exceptional character in the biblical record. But God does not have favourite children, even as it is true that we do not all live equal lives. We are not “all in anything together”, from a human point of view, but we do all enjoy the gift of life from God. There again, that means we are all equally before the eyes of God.
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”Acts 17:26 original NIV
We each have the opportunity to carve out a life of significance with God in the places that we find ourselves. Obadiah was getting on with the business of the day. This is what you have to do when your options are narrowed by the agendas of others- even dictated to you without meaningful negotiation. Especially by the operating board of an established national institution. Your choices are constrained at the best of times. No, this was not the best of times. His daily duty was to attend to the legitimate needs of a household and the whims of an oppressive tyrant and his murderous wife, in a country beset by unrelenting drought. Obadiah knew, in principle, that God could see him, that God was willing for his success and in some tangible and mysterious way, was helping him. At times Obadiah wondered what the point of all this was. What is the value in serving this ghastly pair, this travesty of royalty, this embarrassment to the vision of leadership, in any position, let alone as the crowned heads of Yahweh-God’s covenant people? Here is Obadiah, aiding and abetting Ahab as he exploits and pillages God’s people of their survival rations for the sake of… horses and mules! In a few weeks the remainder will all be dead anyway. Its a pointless task and a criminal waste of time and effort. No- even worse than that. I am maintaining Ahab’s house while the people and the country die. When deliverance comes, when Ahab and his queen are brought down, surely I too will fall in the judgement of the people. How are they to know that I am behind the supply chain that smuggles water and bread to the prophets hidden in two caves just over there in…
They set off at first light, to catch what water there was in the pasture before the midday heat. The disquiet that everyone felt was diffused as the herd was divided and Ahab’s team took a different route. At first, Obadiah’s head was down, as he walked along in silence with the men and the animals, but then hope got the better of him, so he looked up, ever up, taking in the stark beauty and horror of the drying landscape. He recited a few stanzas of psalms of Yahweh worship under his breath as he walked ahead, or then fell behind the group of stable hands. ‘Lord God, remember me for what I have done to keep your servants safe from the queen, whose wicked heart you know. May all her plans to find them fail, and sustain me to continue to supply their daily bread.’ Obadiah had forgotten what it was to know the difference between peace and turmoil in his heart.
The sun had risen steadily through the morning sky, and as the temperature rose, so the scrubby vegetation lost what little moisture had accumulated during the night. The animals were losing interest in grazing. The stock man caught his master’s eye. It was time to return. Obadiah watched as the boys turned the mule pack and then he followed at a short distance, kicking pebbles. Another small stone bounced and skidded across the ground ahead of him, out of rhythm with the others. He glanced around, took a few paces back, and saw a figure sitting motionless a little above him in the rocks.
And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognised him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?”1 Kings 18:7 ESV
All at once, Obadiah is hit with the realisation that he is not in any way invisible. He is watched from an open heaven, and God’s man Elijah has tracked him down in a dusty valley4 far from the regular roads and byways. We might say to him it should be obvious that he is no average individual. He would reply that he is now in above average peril.
Obadiah pushed himself up from his belly on the stony valley side before the Prophet Elijah, so they both remained concealed from the view of the retreating herdsmen by a small outcrop. Several years had passed since their last meeting, when officials of the royal household could be seen in public in the company of the national prophets. I daresay Elijah had made a great impression on this faithful worshipper of Yahweh, and their hearts had been joined. Obadiah was certainly not ashamed to have fellowship with this esteemed man of God, but he was equally clear about the consequences if it were reported that they’d been seen together. This was a high stakes encounter.
Obadiah had not anticipated the half of it. Elijah was indeed intending to show up before Ahab in person. For God had sent him to announce that the drought would come to an end. But this seismic good news comes with strings attached. Elijah bluntly informed Obadiah that it was his job to introduce him to Ahab! And not even to accompany him, so the three meet face to face- but Obadiah is to go on ahead and inform Ahab of his upcoming appointment, at a place and time of Elijah’s choosing. Obadiah had the distinct impression that Ahab would direct all of his anger on him personally… and then he would jump to all manner of cataclysmic conclusions:
Obadiah! You are bringing me a summons from Elijah, the one ‘responsible’ for the national drought and all its consequences.
You are therefore Elijah’s spokesman.
You have been concealing Elijah during his ‘disappearance’.
You do know where the other missing prophets are.
You’ve been a plant for the enemies of my wife, the queen, and all of her friends in this household, during the whole of this time.
You are a base traitor! I care nothing for your claim to have served here in the palace with integrity, separating your ‘personal religious views’ from your ‘secular’ service.
You will go now with these soldiers and lead them to all the other traitors you have hidden. We will not meet again…
I put all this in cool and sanitised terms. Of course, the reality would not be like that. Obadiah would have anticipated consequences like these every day for the last three years, strategising secretly and speaking partial truths in public. Supervising the grazing party this morning was the first time in months that he had been out of the palace compound socially distanced from Ahab’s suspicious eye. Even then he had hardly been at ease. Now Elijah appeared before his eyes- the image of the man of God shot through Obadiah’s eyeball, into the depths of his quietly patiently calculating brain, exploding a cascade of nervous anxiety, for Obadiah was a man with a nature like ours5. He did not know, of course, that lightning impulses coursed down through his torso, at once unstopping a rush of a chemical which flooded into his bloodstream- Now his heart was pounding ever more rapidly in his chest and new sweat was breaking out over his face. His body was ready to run- to run from Elijah, or to fight him, to drive the threat away… Although his mind was racing, he controlled the fear, of course not needing to know that there is no hormone for faith. He took a deeper breath, and then he spoke, with continuing care to keep his voice down.
“How have I sinned?” Obadiah demands of Elijah. This is a suicide mission you are sending me on-it makes no sense at all! The way I have tried to live my life of service and with integrity has only been possible because I have kept everything secret. There is no privilege for me in delivering the grand announcement that the drought is to end and the rain will come at last. Let the rain come, in God’s Name! But this can only be the final punishment for all my private sins, which God knows I have already confessed.
Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water?1 Kings 18:13 ESV
Listen to me Elijah, man of God! I have done my best in my own quiet way. I have done the doing, secretly and successfully. ‘Stay in the cave! Protect the National Prophet Service! Save lives!’ Yahweh knows. God has His glory. Surely you can go alone to Ahab to do the speaking, the confronting, to deliver the judgement. Leave me out of this. God knows that I have been very zealous for His Name every day of my life. Please leave me in peace and go your way.
Obadiah is not the first man of God to reach for excuses to escape divine directions- ever more desperate excuses. If I do as you say, he reasons, then how am I to know that God will not send you away to a different place before meeting Ahab. By the time you get there, I will be dead. Perhaps we can also credit Obadiah with anticipating Elijah’s departure from this life- not by a natural death but by being taken up and away by the Lord. “The Spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where.” This desperate saint now entertains the possibility that while the great prophet might not intend to double cross him, his God might.
What is going on here? Obadiah is right. Elijah should simply continue on his own narrow way to Ahab and Jezebel to deliver the reckoning of the Lord. Did not God send his prophet directly? There is no need or justification for Obadiah to become Elijah’s messenger, which will cause so much jeopardy. God Almighty- what are You doing?!
Elijah insists, and he offers one small comfort. He takes an oath in the Name of the Lord.
“As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.”Elijah’s promise to Obadiah. 1 Ki 18:15
In this way he shows that his word and the Word of the Lord are one and the same. What he says he will do, is what he will do. Just as what He says He will do, He does! The words and actions of the prophet of God will be as one, just as the Words of God are one with all the Doings of God. Now Obadiah is to walk in the pattern of his senior brother and example. God is certainly pleased with Obadiah’s sacrificial service. He knows very well what his secret man in the palace has done. But God’s doings are one with his Word. Obadiah is also numbered among those who prophesy. Yesterday’s secret obedience was a sweet savour in the nostrils of the Lord, an acceptable offering. But yesterday was yesterday, and Today is a new day, with new good works prepared for us to do. Thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts to Obadiah, “Speak!”
“For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.
The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”Amos 3:7-8 ESV
Obadiah, with his head up, approached King Ahab and caught his eye. With a small and clearly perceptible quiver in his voice, he spoke one simple sentence.
“Behold, Elijah is here.”
Obadiah walked ahead of his fears into his workplace. Perhaps they would always follow him. As we have seen, real life can be like this, in extended seasons, just as our real lives cannot be insulated from pain. We do not know what Ahab says to Obadiah, but he does go to meet with Elijah. In English translation, the sentence that follows Obadiah’s announcement to Ahab begins, ‘And…’ This is often to be understood as ‘immediately.’ Ahab’s attention has moved instantly away from Obadiah to Elijah. What is recorded in the text is telling. Ahab tries to get his verbal revenge in first. ‘Troubler of Israel’ is what he spits at Elijah. Ahab guesses what is coming, and tries to create doubt in Elijah’s mind. But he has given the game away, like a small child whose shrill denial contains his own reluctant confession. The text makes clear that we can read Ahab like a book. This does not mean that evil never triumphs. As further episodes in the account of Ahab and Jezebel as regents of the northern kingdom make clear, sometimes evil does triumph6. And we are also astonished to discover the scale of the grace of God. Perhaps we can assume, in some meaningful way, that Obadiah and his family were kept safe from the excesses of the king and queen. This can only be speculation, for he is not mentioned again after announcing Elijah’s arrival at court. We know that God promises us to restrain the assault of evil and we can see clues of this in Ahab’s behaviour. Yet this is not guaranteed. In the New Testament, the focus of this assurance is shifted from the other person’s evil to my own. “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear/endure it.”7
Obadiah lived his working life in Ahab and Jezebel’s palace, yet all the while he was in a psychological cave similar to the one hundred prophets he had sheltered. He had successfully maintained his spiritual and mental health under phenomenal pressure. As our passage comes to a climax in the confrontation between Elijah and Ahab, there is one more detail that ought to catch our attention. Elijah challenges Ahab to summon the priests of Baal and Asherah to an epic showdown on Mount Carmel, to see whose God answers by fire! This is the section of 1 Kings that is most frequently preached, and with good reason. But before pressing on to this blockbuster episode, pause a little longer to notice this. Elijah has a chart of up to date statistics on the spread of the evil pagan wickedness in Israel, and so he confronts Ahab:
Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.1 Kings 18:19 ESV
Obadiah kept quiet about this little detail. Not only was he responsible for the operation of the royal household, as we were told at the beginning, it is now plain that the wicked queen has been holding court with the full roster of pagan prophets at the royal tables. So Obadiah would surely have found himself as chief butler in the most testing company on what Elijah implies is a regular basis. It seems reasonable to take a long glance ahead in history to the lot of some of the Christian converts in first century Rome, or to the Revelation church at Pergamum that St John addresses with the very words of God, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name…” or even further on, to Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was striving secretly to train independent pastors in the Germany of the Third Reich. Similar pressures are building on our brothers and sisters in China and Hong Kong today. I think they are all comfortable in Obadiah’s company.
Obadiah teaches us to manage and lead faithfully under the most extreme pressures and in very uncomfortable circumstances, in the midst of both personal peril and extended national crisis. We can see that we must choose some fights carefully, and in the grace of God, hope to overcome. Other confrontations beckon to us, and we may be led forward unwillingly, against our better judgement, to both act and speak. Such is the narrow way of prophets in the wildernesses of life.
- 1 Kings 21:1-2 Now Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 And after this Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.”
- 1 Kings 20:28 And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’”
- James 5:17 NKJV Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months.
- 1 Kings 21:14 Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”
- 1 Cor 10:13
As this meditation evolved, it’s title has changed several times. ‘Where’s the joy gone?’ became, amongst other things, ‘Faith, with hope, joy and peace on the side, please.’ As the character of Obadiah has emerged more and more clearly to me, it has also become clear that who and what he is must be the clear focus of the heading. His story cannot be properly told and yet reduced to a piece of wordplay. So now its called ‘Obadiah, God’s secret leader (well, for most of the story) in crisis’. Because, unlike Ahab, that is what he was.
(c) Stephen Thompson 2020