I’ve been reading through 1 Kings with my kids, and we recently got to the section about Elijah. Introduced abruptly in chapter 17, the early record of his ministry is a near barrage of miracles. After being fed by ravens, and then a never-ending supply of flour and oil, he raises a widow’s son to life before confronting Ahab and the false prophets on Mt. Carmel. In response to Elijah’s prayers, first fire falls from heaven, and then rain, ending a three-year drought. Chapter 18 ends with him supernaturally outrunning a chariot to beat the king to his palace.
And then Elijah falls apart. A death threat from Queen Jezebel shows him that the war with Baal worship is far from over, and he crumbles. He starts running for his life and doesn’t stop until almost six weeks later when he finally arrives at Horeb.
When God asks him why he’s there, Elijah’s answer is revealing: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10, 14).
Even though he should know better (18:13), Elijah has come to believe he’s the last prophet standing. And now that his initial bout of despair (19:4) has passed, self-preservation has become his main goal. If he dies, he thinks, so does all true religion in Israel. It all comes down to him. As I explained it to my kids the other night, Elijah seems to think he’s the main character in this story.
God’s response gently cuts him down to size. Elijah still has a job to do, a part of which includes appointing his own replacement (v. 16). Almost as a by-the-way, Elijah is informed that a full 7,000 Israelites will remain faithful to the Lord. Clearly, not everything rises or falls with Elijah. This story is a lot bigger than him.
The continuing narrative of 1 Kings itself reinforces this point. After the calling of Elisha, chapter 20 recounts a series of events involving Ahab’s wars with Syria. At least four unnamed prophets have a role in this account—but not Elijah. After briefly reappearing in chapter 21, Elijah once again fades into the background as yet another prophet speaks to Ahab in chapter 22. And then, after a final confrontation with a wicked king in 2 Kings 1, Elijah is taken off the scene. Elisha’s ministry then commences with a substantial string of miracles that outnumber anything recorded about Elijah.
The message in all of this is clear: Elijah was most certainly not the last man standing. God’s plans continued to unfold just fine whether Elijah was involved or not. God didn’t need Elijah’s help, and Elijah certainly wasn’t the main character of the story. God was.
Put another way, it was incorrect for me to write that this part of 1 Kings is “the section about Elijah.” These chapters are not about Elijah or any other human character. They’re about God, who graciously chooses to do much of His work through His often-weak servants.
There’s at least two lessons I’ve been reflecting on from all of this.
1. For Parents
First, for parents: please read the Bible to your kids. And by that I mean the real Bible in a reliable translation. We’ve used and appreciated several Bible storybooks and devotionals in our home, but there’s no replacement for the actual Bible when it comes to drawing out truths and principles like the ones we’ve been chewing on together here.
As a preacher, I get to spend hours each week studying the Bible, and yet some of my most profound moments with Scripture over the last few years have been while reading and explaining it to my children. Trying to help their little minds understand it has, time and time again, helped me understand it in a deeper or fresher way.
If you are going to use a devotional tool with your children—as a supplement to actual Bible reading— I’d encourage you to stay away from character-focused books like the Action Bible. The medium shapes the message, and when we try to re-tell the story of the Bible as if it was a comic book adventure, we inevitably end up warping the truth that God in Christ is the main character of the Bible, and that He typically does his best work through people who not super-heroically muscular but rather weak, ordinary and even unknown.
If the thought of opening the Bible with your kids seems intimidating, there’s a great little book by Jon Nielson called “Bible Reading With Your Kids” (church library link) that will be a big help as you get started.
2. For Everybody
Secondly, what’s this mean for all of us at the cusp of a new year? It means that, whatever stories 2023 will tell, none of them will be about us. You and I are merely supporting characters whose job is to bring attention to our Creator and Saviour.
God’s intention in 2023 is the same as it’s been for every other year of history: that in all things, Christ might be preeminent (Colossians 1:18). He is the main character of history, and of your story.
Life will not make sense as long as we think it’s supposed to be about us. The confusion begins to clear up when we realize that “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
So, amid the New Year’s hubbub about self-focused resolutions and self-improvement and self-care and self-whatever, don’t forget that 2023 is not about you. It’s about Jesus. It’s good to ask how this year could be different than the one before—but for Jesus’ sake, not just ours. Whatever our plans, intentions, hopes, or fears are as we think about the future, let’s enter this new year intent on making much of Christ, not ourselves.
As we turn the calendar over tomorrow, may the prayer at the bottom of our heart be “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).