As you walk down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the statues of various founders of religious congregations gaze down on you from their niches. Looking just left of the papal altar, you will see the statue of Elijah, the biblical prophet whose life and work inspired the founding of the Carmelite Order. His arm is outstretched, his index finger is pointing dramatically, and you can almost hear him challenging the people of ancient Israel: “If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).
Although Elijah’s audience refused to answer, the prophet never stopped insisting that they respond to God’s word. And today, from his perch in St. Peter’s and the pages of the Bible, Elijah does the same for us: Listen to God’s word! he cries out. Let it transform your lives! Become the prophetic people God is calling you to be!
Who is Your God? Elijah steps onto the stage of Israelite history nearly a hundred years after the glorious days of King David. But the realm is now divided into two kingdoms, and despite the urgings of numerous prophets, no ruler since David has walked in God’s ways.
The worst monarch so far is Ahab, who rules the northern kingdom of Israel. On ascending to the throne (873 b.c.), he negotiates a politically opportune marriage to Jezebel, a foreigner who promotes the worship of Baal in the land of Israel. Ahab immediately builds an altar to this god (1 Kings 16:30-33).
Centuries earlier, Moses had taught that obedience to the word of God means life, while disobedience means destruction (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). And so, since Ahab has turned away, Elijah now comes to announce a punishing drought. The prophet’s very name—Hebrew for “my God is Yahweh”—suggests a confrontation and a choice. It looks out at us from the biblical page and asks: Who is your God? Is it the God of truth and justice, or a false god who sustains injustice?
Disturbing the Peace. Elijah himself has been transformed by God’s word and is ready to hear and act on it. As he presents his credentials to King Ahab and announces God’s judgment, the word he speaks is not his own (1 Kings 17:1).
Elijah wants the king to be faithful to God’s word, but all Ahab wants is for God to send rain. To him, Elijah is a threat to national security and to his throne—a “troublemaker” who brings disaster on the nation. Elijah bounces the charge right back to the king: “You have brought on this trouble because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord”?(1 Kings 18:17-18).
In fact, Elijah has not disturbed the public peace, but he has disturbed Ahab’s peace. When power and injustice embrace, power seeks the status quo. The prophet who unites peace and justice, however, often upsets the status quo. Power celebrates the rising stock market; the prophet wonders how the widow can pay her rent. Power enjoys recognition, status, and comfort; the prophet considers how the least of our brothers and sisters is faring.
Speaking Out. King and prophet clash once again, when Ahab acquires some land by violence. A neighbor, Naboth, has refused to sell him his vineyard, so Queen Jezebel conspires with the townsfolk to arrange a bogus trial. Naboth is falsely accused of blasphemy and summarily executed. The vineyard is transferred, the king is happy, and the townspeople are silent.
But God is not silent. Again, his word comes to Elijah, who immediately charges the king, not with land expropriation but with murder (1 Kings 21:19). The word of the Lord does not collaborate with injustice, and Elijah lives by that word, even in the face of royal threats. He names the injustice against Naboth and demands an explanation from the king.
While the story focuses on the crime of Ahab and Jezebel, we must not fail to notice the people’s willing participation. It is all too understandable: Anyone speaking in Naboth’s defense would probably have shared his fate. Thus, we begin to grasp how one dictator in our own time could have envisioned the murder of six million Jews and have gotten so many people to cooperate in the atrocity or to keep silent. And consider all the injustices that require our own silence or cooperation today—poverty, homelessness, world debt, human trafficking, and so many other evils. And so Naboth dies every day.
Meditating on this scene, we might ask ourselves:
Why Are You Here? The word of God guided Elijah’s every move. It sent him to a hiding place in the wilderness, then to a town outside Israel, and finally to Ahab (1 Kings 17:3,?8-9; 18:1). Each time Elijah received God’s word, he acted—except for once. Like most prophets, at one point in his life, he got scared.
It happens after a dramatic contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah is victorious, the prophets are slain—and Jezebel is so enraged that the prophet runs away fearing for his life (1 Kings 18-19). He flees to Mount Horeb (Sinai), the place where God had given the law to Moses. On that holy ground, God confronts him: “Why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:9).
That’s a good question! To this point in his life, Elijah has been guided by the word of God. Now he is guided by his fears. He explains his panic to God (as if God didn’t know): “They want to kill me.” But then, in a mysterious encounter, God meets his frightened prophet—not in a great wind, earthquake, or fire but in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). In that experience of divine silence, Elijah’s fears dissipate, and he is ready to receive and obey the word of God once again.
May this “sound of sheer silence” come to us as well, whenever we veer off course! And in moments of trouble or confusion, may we remember to ask ourselves: Why am I here? Where am I on my journey? Does my life have the word of God as its starting point?
The Way of the Prophet. That statue of Elijah in St. Peter’s celebrates the prophet who became an instrument of God’s word nearly three thousand years ago. And lined up with all those other founders, it also reminds us that people in every generation have lived lives transformed by God’s word.
The early martyrs, like Agnes and Marcellinus, died because they refused to sacrifice to Roman gods; they chose the word of the gospel over the word of the emperor. Thomas More chose God’s word over the word of King Henry VIII. As he stood on the scaffold of his execution, he echoed Elijah’s prophetic stance: “I die as the king’s true servant, but God’s first.”
Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest, resisted every attempt to subject the Catholic press to Nazi propaganda. He was arrested as “a dangerous man” after circulating a letter that denounced Hitler’s National Socialism as contrary to religion. Titus recognized that this action would put him in danger, but he assured his colleagues that “God will have the last word.” A “troublemaker” like Elijah, he was murdered in Dachau in July 1942. Some forty years later, Titus Brandsma was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Indeed, God, not the Nazis, had the last word on his life.
Elijah, along with these and so many other heroes of the faith, bids us to put aside all the chatter that competes for our attention and to give God’s word first place. That word transformed his life and the lives of so many martyrs and saints throughout the ages, so that no other word—no matter how intimidating—could compete with it. It transforms us as well.
By opening ourselves to God’s word, we become prophets—people who do not merely talk about what God says, but who allow God to speak to others through us. Then Elijah’s mission has become our own, and people of our own time encounter in us the saving word of God.
Craig Morrison, a Carmelite priest, is a biblical scholar, writer, and lecturer working at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.