Today is the memorial day of the prophet Saint Elias (aka. Elijah), and a feast day for Carmelite communities worldwide, for Carmelites mark as their origin the semi-eremitical life the prophet led on Mount Carmel, in the Holy Land, near Haifa. Even today, guides will show you what is traditionally recognised as the Cave of Elijah on Mount Carmel. Over the centuries, and especially during the brief European ascendancy in the Holy Land following the more successful crusading battles, religious communities were established on Mount Carmel. Here is Elijah’s entry in the Roman Martyrology for today:
“The commemoration of Saint Elias the Thesbite, who as a prophet of the Lord in the days of the kings Achab and Acazias of Israel successfully defended the one Law of God against an unfaithful people with such strength of spirit that he prefigured not so much Saint John the Baptist as Christ Himself; he left no written prophecy but his memory is faithfully kept, especially on Mount Carmel.”Roman Martyrology (20th of July)
I thought this would be a nice moment to put up the short commentary on the third book of Kings (the numbering in the Greek and old Catholic Bibles, in more modern Catholic Bibles this is the first book of Kings), which contains the stories of the prosperious King Solomon of Israel and the subsequent break up of the united kingdom into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Juda. As the northern kingdom fell fully into idolatry and remained more-or-less in a state of idolatry until its final destruction in 721BC, prophets like Elijah arrived in due course to protest and condemn the prevailing immorality. This is their story.
This third book of Kings is a rather sad book, because the unity of the tribes that David had to struggle long and hard to achieve through diplomacy is ended all of a sudden through the foolishness of his grandson Roboam (aka. Rehoboam). All the glory of Roboam’s father Solomon’s long reign now begins its slow decline, as both Roboam and his descendants and the new kings of the northern tribes of Israel descend, with one or two notable exceptions, into paganism and idolatry.
The book begins with the decline of King David, now a very old man. His son Adonias, like Absalom his older brother, attempted to acquire the succession. But, through the cunning of the priest Sadoc and David’s strongman Banaias son of Joiada, Solomon’s mother Bethsabee acquires the succession for her own son Solomon. Solomon ruled as king of Israel for forty years, as his father David had done, and seems to have been a master at diplomacy, indeed widely renowned in his own lifetime for his wisdom. Solomon began his reign by tying up many loose ends, including the execution of his brother Adonias, who continued to try to oppose his succession; of the captain of the army Joab, whom his father David had learnt to mistrust; and of Semei the Benjaminite, who was a partisan of King Saul of Israel and ever a challenge to David’s own rule over Israel.
But Solomon, in his great wisdom, brought properly to reality the prediction that the prophet Samuel had made about the kings of Israel, in the first book of kings (aka. I Samuel):
“In answer, then, to their request for a king, Samuel told the people all the Lord had said to him. ‘When you have a king to reign over you, he will claim the rights of a king. He will take away your sons from you, to drive his chariots; he will need horsemen, and outriders for his teams; regiments, too, with commanders and captains to marshal them, ploughmen and reapers, armourers and wheelwrights. It is your daughters that will make his perfumes, and cook for him, and bake for him. All the best of your lands and vineyards and olive-yards he will take away, and entrust to his own bailiffs; and he will tithe the revenues of such crop and vintage as is left you, to pay his own courtiers and his own retinue. He will take away servants and handmaids of yours, all the lustiest of the young men, all the asses that work for you, to work for him instead; of your herds, too, he will take tithe. You will be his slaves; and when you cry out for redress against the king you have chosen for yourselves, the Lord will not listen to you; you asked for a king.”I Kings, 8: 10-18
So, Solomon’s government grew to exceed David’s and, to support the system, Solomon established a revenue service, with twelve commissioners to collect from the twelve tribes of Israel, all listed by name in chapter four. And his kingdom and rule extended to the best of the promises God had made to Moses and Joshua in earlier books, stretching from the Mediterranean on the west to the Euphrates on the east. Even as rumours of the king’s wisdom spread throughout the region, revenue from the provinces and tribute from subjected kingdoms poured into the royal treasury at Jerusalem, bringing with it an opulence King David would have been astonished at. Solomon now judged that it was the time to build the Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, and a palace for himself, alongside a palace for his Egyptian queen and a civic centre called the Forest of Lebanon. For this, he contracted with Hiram, king of Tyre, to acquire not only the best wood and tonnes of gold, but the best craftsmanship that the Phoenicians were capable of. And they were among the best craftsmen of the time. They would work alongside the Hebrews, teaching and guiding.
Chapters six and seven therefore provide a detailed description of Solomon’s plan for the Temple, a plan that would follow the proportions of the ancient tabernacle built under Moses’ authority, but exceed it in wealth and finesse. The image at the end of this post shows the king planning the Temple, which was completed in seven years. Solomon then built the palaces and the Forest of Lebanon. The building of the Temple ended with a marvellous liturgical ceremony, in the presence of representatives from all the tribes of Israel, when the king formally transferred the cult of sacrifice from the tabernacle that David had had installed in the City of David in Jerusalem to the new building on mount Moria; the Ark of the Covenant now disappeared forever from public view. This ceremony is described in great detail in chapter eight. The Temple now became the centre of the penitential rites of the Hebrew religion
“‘Whatever requests I or Thy people Israel make shall find audience here; Thou wilt listen from Thy dwelling-place in heaven, and listening, wilt forgive. Has a man wronged his neighbour, and is he bidden to clear himself of the charge by an oath? Then, if he comes to this house of thine, to swear the lie before Thy altar, Thou, in heaven, wilt be listening, and ready to strike the blow; Thine to do justice between thy servants, passing sentence on the guilty and avenging the wrong, acquitting the innocent and granting him due redress. Are Thy people of Israel condemned to flee before their enemies, in punishment of the sins they will surely commit? Then, if they come here repentant, and acknowledging Thy power, pray to Thee and plead with Thee in this temple of Thine, do Thou, in heaven, listen to them, and forgive the sins of Thy people Israel, and restore them to the land which Thou gavest to their fathers.'”III Kings, 8: 30-34
Solomon had not built only in Jerusalem, with Hiram of Tyre’s help; he had also thought to fortify strategic cities like Heser, Mageddo and Gazer, and indeed any city that stood unwalled. And he built civic buildings all over Israel. And he committed himself to maintaining at least the Temple in Jerusalem. He also reached beyond Edom in the south, which had submitted to him, to establish a port city at Asion-Gaber, at the top of what we call the Gulf of Aqaba, giving himself access to naval trade up and down the Red Sea, another significant source of revenue for the king and the nation. He again received assistance from the Phoenician king Hiram, whose mariners were the best at the time. With all of this wealth, Solomon seems to have built a mightier army than David ever had, with hundreds of chariots and thousands of cavalry.
But Solomon had his faults. One of his great errors was breaking the old rule and condition of possession of the Holy Land by the people: he married women from the other nations round about. And, inevitably in his old age, he was corrupted by the religions these women brought to Jerusalem. Solomon found himself bowing to several gods: Astharte of the Sidonians, Moloch of the Ammonites, Chamos of the Moabites. He even built shrines to Moloch and Chamos within sight of the Holy City. And with these acts, his reign of peace was disturbed. Enemies arrived in Adad the Idumaean, who resented King David’s extermination of his Edomite kingdom; in Razon son of Eliada, a Syrian brigand-turned-king; and, more significantly, in Jeroboam son of Nabat, who would eventually wrest the kingship of the northern tribes away from Solomon’s son Roboam.
Oh, if only Roboam had been wise enough to lessen the burden his father had placed upon the northern tribes. But, when he foolishly decided to be harsh, Jeroboam took his chance.
“So the third day came, and Jeroboam, with all the people at his back, kept the tryst which the king had made with them for the third day following. And the king, instead of heeding the advice which the older men had given, spoke to the people harshly, with such words as the younger men had prescribed to him. ‘If my father’s yoke fell heavy on you, he told them, mine shall be heavier still; if his weapon was the lash, mine shall be the scorpion.’ Thus the king refused to fall in with his people’s will; the Lord had left him to his own devices, in fulfilment of the promise Ahias the Silonite made, in his name, to Jeroboam son of Nabat. And when the people found that the king would not listen to them, they were quick with their answer. ‘David is none of ours, they cried; not for us the son of Jesse; go back, men of Israel, to your homes! Let David look to the affairs of his own tribe!’ And with that, the people dispersed to their homes; none but the Israelites living in the cities of Juda would acknowledge Roboam as king.”III Kings, 12: 12-17
The rest of the book is mostly about the descent of the kings of Israel, Jeroboam and the several others who followed him, further and further into idolatry. Jeroboam had himself attempted to create a religion to rival the cult of the Jerusalem Temple on Egyptian models, as described in chapter twelve. This infidelity to God resulted in much strife in the royal succession of Israel, as kings were treacherously murdered by subordinates, who proceeded to seize power; thus Baasa ended the dynasty of Jeroboam, and Zambri the dynasty of Baasa, Zambri himself being dethroned within a few months by Amri, a soldier in the Israelite army. Judah had better luck with her kings, for although Roboam and Abiam his son were also idolaters (like Solomon in his later years), their successors Asa and Josaphat his son were faithful to the God of Israel. However, Asa and Josaphat failed to destroy the hill-top shrines that had become common by this time.
King Amri of Israel began the greatest dynasty of the northern kingdom, for his son Achab was as powerful and capable as he was, although both were idolaters. Amri had built the city of Samaria, that would stand the test of time. Achab was the king who married the infamous Sidonian princess Jezabel, whose name is even today a byword for cruelty. She had implanted the religion of Baal of the Sidonians in Israel and in the mind of Achab, prompting the arrival on the scene of one of the greatest of the prophets of the God of Israel, Elias of Thesbe (aka. Elijah the Thesbite). After Jezabel had organised a great massacre of the prophets of the God of Israel, Elias arranged his celebrated competition with the prophets of Baal, demanding that the people choose their allegiance either to the God of Israel or to Baal, and to live with the consequences:
“So Achab sent word to all the men of Israel, and gathered the prophets together, there on mount Carmel. And now Elias appeared before the whole of Israel, and thus reproached them, ‘Will you never cease to waver between two loyalties? If the Lord is God, then take his part; if Baal is God, then take his.‘ No word did the people give him in answer, and Elias began speaking to them again; ‘Here am I, he said, the only prophet of the Lord left, while Baal has four hundred and fifty. Bring us two bulls; let them choose which they will, cut it up into pieces, and set these upon fire-wood, without kindling it. I will prepare the other bull, and I too will set it on fire-wood still unkindled. Then call upon the names of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord I serve; and the God who sends fire in answer shall be acknowledged as God.’ ‘Well said,’ cried all the people, ‘well said!'”III Kings, 18: 20-24
Of course, Elias was successful, and was able to rid Israel of the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. But when Jezabel found out about it, he fled southward, ending up as far as mount Horeb, where Moses had received the ten Commandments. Elias ends up receiving a mission to anoint a new king of Israel and acquiring a new disciple and successor, Eliseus son of Saphat (aka. Elishah). Meanwhile, Achab’s end was swiftly coming, and the book ends with the death of this great king of Israel. After two successes against Benadad, the king of Syria, and the subjugation of Syria, Achab made an ill-advised bid to restore to Israel the cityship of Ramoth-Galaad in the Transjordan from Syrian annexation. With the assistance of the Josaphat, king of Judah, and ignoring the warnings of the prophet Michaeas, Achab joined battle, was injured in the chest by a stray arrow and died soon after in Samaria. And now on to the fourth book of Kings.
This short addition is from the following fourth book of Kings (aka. the second book of Kings in modern Bibles) and continues the story of Elijah. After the death of Achab, his son Ochozias had a bad accident and didn’t last very long himself. But now it was time for Elias to himself depart, and he does so dramatically, ascending in a whirlwind, and so becoming one of a handful of biblical characters who didn’t die normally. His disciple Eliseus, who had accompanied him, inherited his mantle as prophet and his ability with miracles.
“When they had crossed, Elias said to Eliseus, ‘Make what request of me thou wilt, before I am carried away from thee.’ And he answered, ‘I would have a double portion of the spirit thou leavest behind thee.’ ‘It is no light request thou hast made,’ said he. ‘If I am carried away in full view of thee, it means thy request is granted; if not, it is refused.’ And they were still going on, and talking as they went, when all at once, between them, a flaming chariot appeared, drawn by flaming horses, and Elias went up on a whirlwind into heaven. Eliseus watched it, crying out, ‘My father, my father, Israel’s chariot and charioteer!’ But now he had sight of him no longer. He caught at his own clothes, and tore them across then he took up the mantle of Elias, that had fallen from him; and when he reached Jordan bank again, with this mantle that had fallen from Elias he struck the waters; but they did not part. ‘Alas,’ cried he, ‘where is he now, the God of Elias?’ With that, he struck the waters again, and they parted this way and that, for Eliseus to cross over.”IV Kings, 2: 9-14
The ability to get across the river Jordan in this fashion must have been the mark of a prophet of the one God. There was a reason that Saint John the Baptist chose this very spot to carry out his ministry of baptism – he was a much, much later successor of Elias/Elijah. This is where I shall end this article, because I had intended this article to commemorate the prophet Elijah on his memorial day. May we be as bold as he was, and as true to the one eternal God.