“And he came thither until a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. 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. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9–13).
Three men approach the cave, pulling themselves over boulders and outcroppings. They are bone-tired; but goaded by a desperate strength, they clamber on, circling north to the very entrance not far below the summit of Mt. Horeb.
“Move over, Elijah,” says the first; “your cave has room for me. You think you have been zealous for the Lord only to find your victories mocked by Jezebel. You win the contest at Carmel, show up the priests of Baal, wipe out the whole bloody lot of those imposters, and then … what good does it do? Jezebel vows to kill you; she smiles sweetly at her soldiers and pouts before silly old Ahab, and your victory is turned into defeat. One conniving woman casts her spell, and who cares that God through you ended the drought? Who cares how it came to rain so long as the corn grows and there is food to eat, horses to ride, game to hunt, and liquor to get drunk on?
“Your contest is small potatoes compared to ours. We’ve worked for centuries, civilizing the barbarians who barely knew how to build a fire and make a wheel. They learned manners, wore decent clothes, quit dragging their women about by the hair. They learned to eat their meat with fork and knife. More, we taught them justice, to live by reason and cooperation, to arbitrate their disputes instead of hitting each other with clubs. They listened. The thieves stole no more, the adulterers became faithful, the fighters restrained, the lazy worked. With industry and temperance to preserve their energy and money they spread over the earth, tilling the soil and building cities. Most of all, they found freedom.
“But do they now love God and praise him for all this? Ha! Rapists run rampant in Brooklyn, terrorists bomb homes and churches in Mississippi. White men and black men hate each other. Christian nations spend most of their money building weapons. So do other nations. Cruelty and drunkenness abound. Youth are enticed by every sort of sin. Money-making is apparently the highest good, and influence peddlers exploit it.
“Men run off with others’ wives. If they are little men, they are scorned; if they are famous, they are secretly admired by those not quite brave enough to sin openly themselves. Movies and plays glorify lust.
“Gambling is the big thing for the world-weary, with distinguished-looking gentlemen appearing on TV to extol its merits and express the hope that churches will cooperate in legalizing it.
“Communism is more vicious than Jezebel ever was, laughing at God and ‘bourgeois morality,’ claiming we can have a decent society without God. You think Ahab was weak? What about the inheritors of the Christian West, where dragsters stream past the churches on the way to the races any Sunday morning, passing up the outboards and inboards headed for the beach? So clever have been our priests of Baal, prating of religion without God, that even the sons of Luther and Calvin and Wesley and Fox complacently suppose they serve God well by acknowledging him on Easter and Christmas, or by accompanying mother on Mother’s Day—to make her happy.
“Duty has lost its momentum. It is a derelict on the storm-tossed sea, powerless, apart from God.”
The second man approaches the cave and speaks. “Move over, Elijah. Your cave has room for me in its cool comfort. You think your victory over the priests of Baal goes unappreciated. I know how you laughed at those ignorant savages cutting themselves with knives and trying to wring fire for their offerings from storm gods carved up to look like bulls. What a farce! Where was their man who usually hides under the altar with a hopper of coals? Did you drench him with a bucket of water? No matter, you cannot buck the whole college of Baal when Jezebel, daughter of the King of Tyre, subsidizes it.
“Your work was local, Elijah; but we have worked for centuries, civilizing the savages of Asia and Europe and the Americas—the whole world, indeed, teaching them how to turn their grunts and groans into words and words into ideas. Our missionaries awakened reason within men and taught them the power of words. They made tools for conquering the world about them instead of living in fear of imaginary demons of the woods.
“Because of our work they measured the earth and named the elements. They discovered and harnessed God’s universe. By sea, land, and air they navigated the globe; and now they probe into space. Scientists once praised God for knowledge of his earth. Such was the victory of knowledge over ignorance when men understood that the earth is the Lord’s.
“But what has happened? Ah! It makes me sick. First men decided God was no longer necessary now that men knew so much. We can manage nicely from now on, thank you. The world, they said, was self-contained and self-explained.
“How convenient. For the crushing responsibility knowledge brings is lifted, it seems, when one just measures atoms and manipulates things, without having to report to God.
“So the school children learn where the countries are, and their capitals, how the rivers run to the ocean, how to work algebra and tell one kind of animal from another. They learn how and where people live and how one can be at ease in society. And they learn how to make money using God’s earth. After twelve years of schooling the average youngster feels awkward about God, as if the world he is learning about has no place for God.
“What irony. God gives man an ordered universe and an ordered mind. But then the very ground of truth is bypassed by an educational system that cannot figure out how to handle God in a non-sectarian way and a Church that cannot make God real in his own world—or hasn’t the time to try, what with everything else going on.
“We have forgotten that God gave man his dominion over the earth; and now that men have refused the knowledge of God, truth is being shattered into bits. Words are used not to find God’s truth but to impress folks, to sound nice, to sell deodorants to innkeepers and dog food to dogkeepers. Words that should be used to carry truth back and forth from person to person are now used to steal from others. Words are used to sell tobacco to children and wine to families, even though true words show that tobacco causes cancer and wine makes winos.
“When words are profaned, children lie to parents and parents to children, teachers to pupils and pupils to teachers, diplomats to diplomats, officials to taxpayers and taxpayers to officials. And our literature sanctifies the mess by sweetening the lies with drama. Words, like tax assessments, are now at one-fourth true market value.
“We live amid an upheaval of language, and even the philosophers quibble about what it means for something to mean something. Valleys are called mountains and mountains valleys in this chaos.
“How does it strike you? How can duty call us to be good when we have to take an opinion poll, electronically tabulated, to decide what good means, and no one thinks to consult God?”
The third man came through the entrance of the cave and moved over to Elijah. Then he spoke. “Move over, Elijah; make room in this cave for me. I understand your dislike for Ahab and sympathize with your plight. What a crude creature, this Ahab—so brutalized, he worries more about finding water for his prize mules than for his suffering people; so dominated by sex that he tries to worship both Baal and God in order to curry favor with Jezebel.
“Long live King Ahab, connoisseur of fine mules, good-looking women, and good wine. Wine, women, and song.…
“We have our own Ahabs, Elijah, we have them by the thousands and the millions. Men cultivate their tastes in this or that and substitute perfection in some trifling attainment for the holiness that God would give them. Women are more concerned about matching accessories than about developing good character; men care more about the right pipe than about prayer, more about polishing their cars than about cleaning up their thoughts. People spend more on pheasant hunting and beauty-parlor treatment than on helping the poor and evangelizing the unconverted.
“The whole quest for the beautiful has degenerated: athletics into commercialism, drama into bawdy entertainment, music into noise, art into novelty.”
The three lapsed into silence and sat hunched in the cave, brooding bitterly, unable to curtain off a world too much with them. Finally Elijah spoke into the somber silence: “I, too, know the bitterness of discouragement, of seeing a lifetime of good shattered in a moment of inanity or perversion. I understand your anxiety when irreligion sweeps the land and people who have received so much through your efforts are ungrateful or malevolent, when a few molders of public opinion can tear away your heritage. It is hard to have faith in a world in which well-trained men are paid handsome salaries to make up lies for children, where the greatest skills of a nation are employed in destruction. Freedom is a terrifying thing when men turn their backs on God.
“I think that’s why the discouraged ones find me here in the cave. No longer earthbound, I can outrun them to it and meet them here. Malachi the prophet wrote of me, ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.’
“Did you know these are the last words of the Old Testament?” he asked. “So faith does come by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Listen well to God’s word to you, you faint in heart who have labored in the heat of the day. Listen and renew your faith.”
With that he beckoned, and leaving the cave he led the three men over boulders and around the crest, up, up to the top of the mountain of God.
“Look,” he called. “Over there Moses received the commandments from the Lord amid thunder and lightning and crashing of rocks. The adversary does not want man to know God, and when the laws of God are disobeyed the storms of violence howl across the world and make God’s garden a wasteland. Their very force screams back at man until either he cries out for the stones to hide him from the terror of the judgment or else, penitent, he cries out for a shelter in a time of storm.
“It is not enough to say ‘do your duty,’ be good.’ Man cannot. And only in that realization rests his hope. Oh, he can improve here and there, change from socially unacceptable to socially acceptable sins, learn more clever ways of lying, or of getting his own way and using others. But the heart of man is deceitfully wicked. Who can know it? It eludes all man’s own descriptions. Without fear of God reason has no foundation and morality no base. There are no rules, but only everyone clamoring for five strikes when it is his turn at bat. And so the winds of opinion sear the land and there is a famine, not for food, but for some word from God.”
With that Elijah moved over to the other side of the lofty crag and pointed across to jagged rock outcroppings and precipitous chasms.
“Here earthquakes zig-zagged across that range of mountains,” he said. “And such, too, is God’s sign. Men cannot build upon lies. Whenever they use their minds to defend their sins, their houses will not stand. Through the ages clever men have exploited the greed of the less crafty on behalf of Aryan supremacy, white supremacy, black supremacy, the so-called ‘classless’ supremacy, or simply on behalf of personal tyranny in the small world of the family. Then these men’s ideas shake the world to its core, occupying the front pages of the newspapers and swallowing their victims in blood-soaked fields around the world. The pressure builds up little by little from this place and that, in a neighborhood where the word ‘dirty nigger’ is hurled in passing, or ‘peasant,’ or ‘Jew,’ or ‘slave.’
“It is simply not enough to say, ‘be reasonable,’ ‘think,’ ‘get more education.’ Moral defiance of God leads to mental defiance of truth. Whenever God is denied, the spoken or written word loses power until communication becomes superficial, a babble of inconsequentials. If only men could learn that God is the source of truth and not a symbol for things not yet understood scientifically. Sin and ignorance constantly fault man’s reason, but God’s answer is greater than the earthquake. His answer is his Word.
“This mount of God on which you stand burned bright with fire before my eyes as it did in Moses’s day. Fangs of lightning struck, burning trees to a crisp and splitting rocks apart while thunder rolled across the canyons. This very spot shook. After the piercing light came blackness and the tempest. Such is the passionate spirit of man. Men may be bounded by duty and reason, but they live by spirit. They write poems and paint pictures, they play games and gather flowers, they sing, and they love. They worship. They yearn to be united with beauty to complete their souls. Men aspire not just to do and to learn, but mostly to be.
“But the fire that lights the soul gets out of hand. Sin spreads it, and it burns others. The very love of man for woman, beautiful beyond describing, save to point to God’s greater love for his people, accounts for much of the world’s misery when sin takes coals of fire from off the altar of a man’s soul. A fire reigns uncontrolled, scorching and destroying, whenever men try to measure the perfection of their artistry or their friendship by their own wants rather than by the holiness of God. They destroy the beauty they would enjoy. The more man grabs the unhappier he becomes, for joy is not weighed by the abundance of things a man possesses. Joy is measured by sonship with God and by creative use of God’s gifts.”
Then Elijah’s countenance softened as he turned his face north. Again he spoke. “This is not the only mountain of God on which I stood. Up north on snow-capped Hermon, from which the Jordan tumbles to the valley, I found the full answer to my questions and surcease from the bitterness of Horeb’s cave. For there on Hermon, in company with Moses, I stood with Jesus. There I found the end of my prophetic utterance and the kingdom that cannot be shaken. I saw Jesus, Mediator of the new covenant. There I beheld the author and finisher of our faith who stooped to conquer sin. Only on that mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration did I understand this terrible mountain where now you stand. On Horeb I learned only a few things to rouse me from discouragement—that 7,000 had not bowed the knee to Baal, that Obadiah’s hidden prophets would help the cause, that a young farmer, Elisha, would pick up the mantle and carry on my work for God, that Ahab’s dynasty would not wreck God’s plans for Israel.
“But when I saw Jesus in all his glory ready to descend to the cross, to be spit upon, to endure the shame, to be the one true pioneer of faith, then I knew that faith in God has its ample reward. In Christ’s cross men of faith in every age see their salvation. In his cross their greatest trials find meaning.
“Not by works of the law, not by moral duty are we saved, lest any man should boast. Nor are we saved by learning, for God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, even the foolishness of the cross of Christ, to reconcile the world unto himself. Enemies all, we have in Christ been forgiven. And when we reflect upon this, we go back to work in season and out of season, knowing that our faith is not in vain.
“So I commend to you Jesus Christ, in whom are all God’s treasures and by whom they are all measured—the good, the true, the beautiful. By his poverty we are made rich. In forgiveness and love we walk in his kingdom and abide in his Holy Spirit. Therefore, ‘see that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven.’ ”
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