Sermon 24. Elijah the Prophet of the Latter Days

"And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice." 1 Kings xix. 11, 12.

{367} ST. JAMES reminds to "take the Prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction and of patience." And he presently adds, "Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are; and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit." [James v. 10, 17, 18.]

Elijah was the foremost, and in one sense the beginning of the Prophets; and, whereas he is so prominent in the Old Testament, he is not less prominent in the New; for he has come to the Church, as if over again, in the person of St. John the Baptist, of whom it was {368} prophesied before his birth, that he should go before our Lord, "in the spirit and power of Elias," to "turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers;" and whom we twice commemorate in the course of the year;—at one time praying that "after his example we may constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake;" at the other, that, as he was sent as a messenger, to prepare Christ's way, so the ministers and stewards of His mysteries may so turn "the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at His second coming we may be found an acceptable people in His sight."

As then St. John is a great saint in the Christian Church, and though not united to her communion in this world, and but a "friend of the Bridegroom," took his rank in it upon his martyrdom; so may we say that, with St. John, Elias also, at least "in spirit and power," and as a pattern, is received into her catalogue of saints, and becomes one of her "burning and shining lights." Nay, if it be true, as has very generally been thought, that the prophecy about his coming was not exhausted in the Baptist, but that Elijah is still to come in his own person at the end of the world, then more awfully still, and in a special manner above all other of the ancient saints, is Elijah connected with the Church of Christ, though the fire from heaven and the slaughter of the idolaters belong exclusively to the Elder Covenant. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful lay of the Lord;" and whereas, in one sense, all days {369} resemble that last day, whereas Christ is ever coming, the love of many ever failing, and iniquity ever abounding (because there is ever distress of nations with perplexity, and rumours of Christ in the desert and in the secret chambers, "Lo here! and Lo there!"), in this respect Elias is ever entering upon his mission, and in his power and spirit the ministers of Christ must ever labour. And in truth he has not been forgotten, nor his Carmel, as the history of the Christian Church bears witness.

Let us then, in this disordered, dreary time, when the heaven above us is so dark, and its stars so hidden—let us, as shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, and soon to be visited by their Lord, consider whether the history of Elijah will not supply us with as clear and satisfactory rules how we ought to "walk in these dangerous days," as might have been anticipated from the place which the Prophet holds in the Christian Church. And if so it be, as we trust it is, that among us the truths of religion are not so fearfully depraved as they were in the kingdom of Ahab, then this consideration will, as we shall find, make the argument only so much the stronger which is deducible from it, and the pattern which Elijah sets us only the more binding.

Now I need hardly say what great Prophets were Elijah and those that followed him,—such as Elisha, Micaiah, and the sons of the Prophets; especially Elisha; so much so, that their miracles almost anticipate our Lord's, as a sort of harbinger and first-fruits of His mighty works, and a type of His doctrines. Was there not some great grace shed in those schools, in which the {370} loaves were multiplied, the oil failed not, fire came down from heaven, lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, and one was taken up into heaven without death, and another, after death, by the very contact of his bones, restored life to the dead? Was there not great grace there, where future events were predicted and the secrets of the heart read from afar? Was there not grace there almost of the Gospel, where we find the Gentiles visited, Sacraments shadowed forth, and the resurrection and immortality of the flesh begun? Whatever be meant by "the spirit and power of Elias," though the gift of physical miracles be not included in it, as the Baptist's history leads us to think, yet it cannot but be something great; it must at least have a secret inward greatness, if its outward manifestations at the first were so extraordinary.

Now there is this remarkable fact concerning Elijah and his brethren, that he, who on the Mount of Transfiguration spake with Moses about their common Lord's passion, was not in communion with the Church of Moses in his lifetime, did not worship at the Temple, was cut off from them with whom was "the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose were the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever." [Rom. ix. 4, 5.] A most remarkable fact certainly, which, while it gives us great comfort, as regards those religious bodies at this day who are deprived of the ordinary channels of grace, is not without its element of encouragement even {371} for us, who, though not without the Apostolical line and the possession of the Sacraments, are separated from the great body of the Church. Now let us dwell on this fact.

It is indeed a most remarkable and gracious providence, that these great Prophets, Elijah and the rest, should have been vouchsafed to revolted Israel; nay, and that they themselves, as their history shows, should have made no effort to set right what had gone so wrong; nay, should not even themselves have paid that honour to the Mosaic worship which had been enjoined upon all the descendants of Israel. You will say that they wrought miracles; doubtless; but that beforehand was a reason rather why they should have enforced a still stricter obedience to the Law, not a reason for their being silent about it. Hear what Moses had said to them: "When ye go over Jordan, and dwell in the land which the Lord your God giveth you to inherit, and when He giveth you rest from all your enemies round about, so that ye dwell in safety; then there shall be a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His Name to dwell there. Thither shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto the Lord." "Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord God." "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it." [Deut. xii. 10, 11. Exod. xxiii. 17. Deut. xii. 32.] If, then, God sent a Prophet with the power of miracles, this was a reason {372} why the Prophet should be especially rigid in his observance of the Law of the Master who sent him. God sends His Prophets to keep the Law, not to break it. He indeed who gave it might recall it; and a Prophet might be His instrument in recalling it, or in modifying, or in developing it; but while the Law continued, surely it was to be "magnified and made honourable," not disregarded. Consider our Saviour's example, and you will acknowledge what I say. He came with greater miracles; He was Giver and Lord of the Law; and moreover, He actually came to supersede it; yet how reverently did He treat, how dutifully did He obey, His own ordinances! He went up to the Temple continually, and bade His hearers obey those who sat in Moses' seat; He sent those whom He cured to the Priests; He paid the Temple tribute; He did not destroy, till He had gained (so to say) a right to destroy, in that He had fulfilled. Not till He could say, "It is finished," did the veil of the Temple rend in twain. Miracles, then, and a Prophet's office, are no warrant at all, as the conduct of the Holiest shows us, for the neglect of God's Law. Why then did He dispense with obedience in the instance of Elijah? why do we not hear of Elijah's going up to Jerusalem three times a year? why did he not do honour to the Priests, and to the Temple service? Even in the last age of the Jewish Church, our Lord said to the Samaritan woman, "Salvation is of the Jews;" [John iv. 22.] and yet Elijah and Elisha, and their brethren, acquiesce in the disorders which surround them; and rather strive to make the best of {373} things as they are, than to bring back a rule of religion which had passed away.

Of course they acted at God's bidding. He can dispense with His laws when He pleases, as well as abrogate them; He did at that time dispense with them, as He abrogated them afterwards; but the strange circumstance is, that He should dispense with them. Yet observe what the matter of fact was: He raised up Elijah for a certain definite work, and for that alone, neither more nor less. First, the Prophet executed the Divine sentence upon Baal's priests, in his own person; next, he was bidden to anoint Jehu for the same work,—a purpose which Elisha brought to effect. But he did no more; to this his mission was limited. How different from our usual way of viewing things! We are accustomed to say that nothing is done, unless all is done; but God's thoughts are not our thoughts, neither our ways His ways. He raises up Prophets and gifts them with miraculous power, to do a half work; not to heal the division of the kingdoms, but to destroy idolatry; not to restore outward unity, but to repress inward unbelief; not to retrace the steps of the wanderers, but to keep them from wandering still farther.

What makes this providence stranger still, is, that a return to the Temple service might, in this particular instance, have seemed the very remedy of their idolatrous excesses. The kingdom of Israel had been set up in idolatry; the ten tribes had become idolatrous by leaving the Temple, and they would have ceased to be idolatrous by returning again to it. The real removal of error is the exhibition of the truth. Truth supplants error; {374} make sure of truth, and error is at an end: yet Elijah acted otherwise; he suffered the people to remain where they were; he tried to reform them in that state.

Now why this was so ordered we do not know; whether it be, that when once a people goes wrong, it cannot retrace its steps; or whether there was so much evil at that time in Judah also, that to have attempted a reunion would have been putting a piece of new cloth into an old garment, and had it been effected, would have been an hollow, unreal triumph; or whether such good works have a sort of natural march, and the nearer work must first be done, and then that which is farther removed, and men must undo their sins in the order in which they committed them, and thus, as neglect of the Temple was the sin of Jeroboam, and Baal-worship the sin of Ahab, so they must ascend back again from Ahab to Jeroboam; but, whatever was the reason, so it was, that Elijah and Elisha kept the people shut up under that system, if it might so be called, in which they found them, and sought rather to teach them their duty, than to restore to them their privileges. So had it been with the Israelites in the wilderness, when, after listening to the evil report of the promised land, and murmuring, they were condemned to wander outside its borders, yet not abandoned by the pillar of the cloud, and on their presumptuously attempting to fight the enemy and force a passage, were beaten back, and taught to exhaust the dreary days of the years of their pilgrimage in patience. So was it with Balaam, who, when he tempted God, was bidden to go with the enemies of Israel, yet with God's anger on him because {375} he went. So was it with holy David, who cheerfully waited out the full term of years during which he was to be a wanderer on the mountains, and to cry, "When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?" So was it not with Jeroboam, but so should it have been, who lost patience, and did not wait for the promise, but seized the kingdom before the destined time, and thereby lost that communion with Jerusalem which Elijah did not attempt to restore. So was it with well-beloved Daniel, who in a heathen court led a saint's life, and was visited by Angels, when he could but look towards the Temple. Well then might the schools of the Prophets also be an "example of suffering affliction and of patience;" well might they be content not to go over Jordan, but to die in the wilderness; well might they feed their people with the mere elements of truth, with "milk not with strong meat," while they but obscurely signified Gospel doctrine; for there was envying and strife and division among them, and they were carnal, and were not able to bear the food of men and Angels. So the patient Prophets were satisfied with enforcing, not ecclesiastical duties, but the Ten Commandments; teaching the First and the Second to the multitudes on Carmel by the judgment on Baal's priests; and the Third to those who bade the "man of God" come down from the mountain, and were thereupon smitten with fire from heaven; and the Fifth to the little children who cried out "Bald head;" and the Sixth and the Seventh and the Ninth, in the judgments on her who murdered Naboth, and whose whoredoms were so many; and the Eighth and the Tenth {376} on Ahab, who coveted the vineyard and also took possession;—not sending the Shunammite to Jerusalem, nor eager for a proselyte in Naaman, yet making the heathen fear the Name of God, and proving to them that there was a Prophet in Israel.

Yes, surely, the Ten Commandments were the appropriate theme of a Prophet's preaching in that day; and Elijah would seem best to be renewing communion with Moses, if he went back to that elementary lesson, so solemnly impressed upon the favoured Lawgiver in the wilderness;—what time in his solitary fast he heard the Lord pass by before him, and a Voice proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." [Exod. xxxiv. 6, 7.] And therefore when, at the season of which the text speaks, the Prophet had to flee for his life for fear of Jezebel, and in his heart thought that his mission had failed, he sought not the kingdom of David, he honoured not the precept of unity, he had no heart for that outward glory of holier times; he passed by Jerusalem, he passed on, along a forlorn and barren way, into that old desert in which the children of Israel did wander, till he came to Horeb the Mount of God [Note]. He fled to Antiquity, and would not stop short of it, and so he heard the words of comfort which reconciled him to his work and to its issue. He went in weariness and despondency, for "the children of Israel had forsaken God's covenant, thrown down His altars, and slain His {377} Prophets," and Elijah alone was left; and he wished to die, for he was not better than his fathers. But when he came to Horeb, his gracious Master, the wonder-working God, taught him by the mighty acts recorded in the text, that He was to be found, not in public, but in private, by notes and tokens personal and secret; according to the words of a later prophecy, "I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones;" or in those of our Lord Himself, "Neither shall ye say, Lo here! or Lo there! for the kingdom of God is within you." [Isa. lvii. 15. Luke xvii. 21.]

First, there was a great and strong Wind, which rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks; and next an Earthquake; and then a Fire. What is the Wind, but that "rushing, mighty wind" that was heard on the day of Pentecost? and what the Earthquake, but that "shaking of the place where" the Apostles "were assembled together" when they had prayed? and what the Fire, but the "cloven tongues, like as of fire," which "sat upon each of them"? And the strong Wind went forth into all the world, and swept it clean of idols, and breathed life into the dead bones, and made them live. And the Earthquake followed, and the kingdoms of men were cleared away, and the gold and silver and brass and iron fell down shattered and "broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors," till "the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them." And then came the {378} Fire, when the light of the Church burnt keen and manifest, like the flame of fire in the bush, attracting to it, by its shining, all who passed by. And now has come a time of Silence, like Elijah's time, when the love of many has waxed cold, and truth and antiquity are given up. Surely, then, it is merciful to read in this vision, granted to the Prophet of the latter days, that after all God was not in the Wind, not in the Earthquake, not in the Fire, though He wrought through them; but that His Living and True Word, our Hope and our Salvation, "the engrafted Word, which is able to save our souls," is "a still small Voice;" and that even in that miserable time, when an idol was openly worshipped, God had yet reserved unto Him a remnant, and yet had work for Elijah. "Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus, and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha, the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room ... Yet I have left Me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him."

Let us, then, think it enough, with the Prophets of old, to be patient, to pray, and to wait. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much ... The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up ... Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he {379} receive the early and latter rain." A Prophet of God was satisfied, in silence, though with a full heart, to build the altar of God of twelve stones, in remembrance of the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, on the barren top of Carmel, and to do no more. He was satisfied to minister to the widow and fatherless, though it were only, if so be, to bring their sin to remembrance. He was satisfied to do his work in his day, though the only fruit of it were, that Jehoram should talk with Gehazi of all the great things which Elisha had done. He was satisfied with the reverence and affection of the Shunammite in private, while the world at large was scoffing at him. Let us, in like manner, feel certain, as well we may, that however great are the disorders of this present age, and though the unbelieving seek and find not, yet that to the humble and lowly, the earnest-minded and pure in heart, the Lord God of Elijah still reveals Himself. The Presence of Christ is still among us, in spite of our many sins and the sins of our people. "The spirit and power of Elias" should now especially be with us, because the notes of his day are among us. What is the token of his coming but a backsliding age? what are the notes of that Man of God, but dimness and confusion, the threatenings of evil, the scattering of the faithful, and the defection of the powerful? "In the way of Thy judgments, O Lord, have we waited for Thee; the desire of our soul is to Thy Name, and to the remembrance of Thee. With my soul have I desired Thee in the night, yea with my spirit within me will I seek Thee early." "Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour {380} of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." [Isa. xxvi. 8, 9. Hab. iii. 17, 18.]

What want we then but faith in our Church? with faith we can do every thing; without faith we can do nothing. If we have a secret misgiving about her, all is lost; we lose our nerve, our powers, our position, our hope. A cold despondency and sickness of mind, a niggardness and peevishness of spirit, a cowardice and a sluggishness, envelope us, penetrate us, stifle us. Let it not be so with us; let us be of good heart; let us accept her as God's gift and our portion; let us imitate him, who, when he was "by the bank of Jordan, ... took the mantle of Elijah, that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah?" [2 Kings ii. 13, 14.] She is like the mantle of Elijah, a relic from Him who is gone up on high.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Vide Mal. iv. 4, 5.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.