I once attended a Jewish Passover meal. Noting an empty chair, I asked, "Are we expecting another guest?" "No, by tradition we seat place for Elijah," came the reply. For the Jews, Elijah represents a longing for a type of messiah they never got. It occurred to me later that for many Christians, too, Elijah represents what we think we want in a messiah. Who among us does not harbor a secret desire for God to act now as in Elijah's day?

Our cartoon image of a prophet comes largely from Elijah, who lived in the wilderness, wore the skins of animals, and emerged from hiding to make lightning raids on a pagan empire. When John the Baptist appeared centuries later,for many Jews (including Jesus), he brought Elijah vividly to mind.

Observers wondered for a time if Jesus himself might be Elijah reincarnate,but he soon disabused them of that notion. Jesus simply did not fit the Elijah mold:

Elijah solved problems. Ravens fed Elijah in the desert, and he became a popular house-guest by providing a widow an endless supply of oil and flour. When the widow's son died, Elijah promptly resurrected him. Some of these miracles prefigured Jesus' own, but with an important difference: Jesus' miracles benefited others but not himself. He fed 5,000, yet went hungry in the wilderness. The source of Living Water died with the words "I thirst" on his lips.
—Nobody messed with Elijah. Children love hearing stories about Elijah because, frankly, they have a Terminator aspect to them. This scraggly desert prophet strolled into the gleaming city of Samaria and took on a thousand false prophets in their fancy white robes. He blasted the king for seizing a commoner's vineyard. When a company of soldiers came to arrest him, fire dropped from ...
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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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