Far Apart In Spirit
It is said of Obadiah, not that ‘he feared Jehovah’ (commendable as that might be), but that he “feared Jehovah greatly” (1 Kings 18: 3, my emphasis). In that respect, he puts many a modern believer to shame. Nor was the day in which he lived an easy one for a true child of God. An evil king was on the throne, and the queen was determined to stamp out the true faith. Obadiah was steward in this royal house, and when “Jezebel cut off the prophets of Jehovah”, Obadiah, at great personal risk to himself “took a hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and maintained them with bread and water” (v4). Here is a man who, unlike so many in the day in which we live, did not shrink from costly service.
And yet there was a flaw. It is true that Obadiah had compassion on the prophets in their hour of need, hiding them in a cave from the persecution and feeding them there, but all the while he was the adviser, the companion, and the minister of King Ahab, the very one in whose kingdom the iniquity was practised! Mixture, in all its forms, is abhorrent to God: “Thou shalt not wear a garment of mixed material, [woven] of wool and linen together” (Deut. 22: 11). The garment that Obadiah wore (speaking metaphorically) didn’t need a close inspection to make out what kind it was. The “mixed material” of “wool and linen” were to be seen in it from head to foot. He feared Jehovah, but he also served Ahab. He was a man of mixed principles.
Not so Elijah. The “wool and linen” of Obadiah’s garment stands in contrast to the leather girdle that Elijah wore (see 2 Kings 1: 8), and when the two men come together this difference is brought out in a striking way. Obadiah makes considerable effort to conciliate the mind of Elijah. He reminds him of what he had done for the persecuted prophets of God in the day of their trouble, and tells him that he had feared Jehovah from his youth (see 1 Kings 18: 12–13), but Elijah moves only slowly and coldly towards him. Painful it is to observe this hesitation between two saints of God, but it is not unusual, though few like to admit it.
There could have been no blending of the spirits of Abraham and Lot after Lot “lifted up his eyes” (Gen. 13: 10) and took the road to Sodom. It is true that we are not actually told this in the history, but it is remarkable that not a word is recorded as ever passing between them again. We can easily see why. There was a moral distance quite sufficient to keep them apart, though a short journey would have brought them together. These things are just as true now. The Abrahams and the Lots of our day do not meet at all, or if they do meet, there is no real communion. That is not to say that Abraham repudiated the kinship he had with Lot. Abraham rescued “his brother” (Gen. 14: 16, my emphasis) from the hands of King Chedorlaomer, but this was no meeting of saints: they did not blend. And if the people of God cannot come together in character then really they are better apart. In spirit they are already separated.
All this is even more vividly seen in Obadiah and Elijah. The man with the leather girdle—God’s stranger in the land in the days of Ahab—would not normally be found in company with the governor of Ahab’s house. But as Abraham had cause to meet Lot in an evil day, so the paths of Elijah and Obadiah cross, however momentarily. Ahab his master had divided the land with Obadiah to search for water in the day of drought. The Lord his God had proclaimed through Elijah that the land would have neither rain nor dew for three years (see 1 Kings 17: 1; 18: 5–6). Two conflicting commissions! The occasion of their meeting is thus of great interest, and has much to teach our souls.
There is effort on the part of Obadiah but reserve with Elijah. This is necessarily so. On the one hand, Obadiah seeks to combine with Elijah, while on the other, Elijah resists the effort. Obadiah calls Elijah his lord (see 1 Kings 18: 7), but Elijah straightaway reminds him that Ahab is Obadiah’s lord (see v8). There is every justification for the curtness of Elijah’s response. We are not to be serving the world and going on in the course of it behind another’s back and then, when we come together, assume that we can meet as saints. This will not do. Nonetheless, the attempt to have things this way is very natural, and is increasingly common in our day as standards decline. Elijah acted in keeping with the garment he wore, a saint walking in separation from the world (see Matt. 11: 8). Obadiah had been walking with the world in Elijah’s absence, and Elijah cannot let him now assume that he could slip into communion with a saint who had been true to his calling. There can be no passing back and forth between saints and the world. It must be one or the other.
Obadiah pleads: “What have I sinned?” (1 Kings 18: 9). But why say that? Elijah had not accused him of sinning. Why this alarm and agitation of spirit? It is because Obadiah fears that heeding the prophet’s word (indeed, God’s word—see v1) will endanger his life before the King. But Obadiah had got himself in a false position with all its consequences, and he cannot expect sympathy from Elijah, the one who had remained true to his calling. Had not Obadiah been in Ahab’s palace when Elijah was being fed by the ravens at the brook? That was the issue, not the question of sinning that Obadiah raises! He goes on: “Was it not told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the prophets?” (v13). What was the relevance of this? Elijah had not been going over Obadiah’s history. It is a miserable thing for a saint of God to be talking about past service in this way.
These are the thoughts that Obadiah takes refuge in now that he is in the presence of a faithful witness of Jehovah: he had not sinned, and in the past he had done service. Is that enough to enjoy the communion or understand the mind of an Elijah? Obadiah seeks to meet the prophet on common ground—in effect, ‘I am as you’—but there is no warmth in the response of Elijah. What a low sense of the proper calling of the people of God the soul must have if it thinks that saints can go on together on such a flimsy and feeble basis! If the world can be served when we are behind each other’s backs, (though we may not have ‘sinned’ as men view things), however much we may say we “fear Jehovah” and have served him in the past, we are not fit for being in communion with the saints.
There are other things besides pleading “we have not sinned,” or trading on past character and service. Have we been in heaven or in Ahab’s court? Have we been desiring the things of Christ or making provision for the flesh? Obadiah was governor over Ahab’s house: how could one like Elijah ever be comfortable in his presence or feel at ease with him? He felt reserve, and he expressed it in manner if not in words. Obadiah is the man of words on the occasion—that was natural as well, and is the typical style of meetings between the Elijahs and the Obadiahs of today. In no sense can it be described as communion when there is effort on the one side and reserve on the other. They were not really in company with each other. Their spirits could not blend. The garment of mixed material, which a saint of God must necessarily wear in Ahab’s court, ill–matched the leather girdle of a separated, suffering witness of Jehovah. The poor widow of Zarephath, whom Elijah had recently left, enjoyed the full flow of Elijah’s sympathies, and that humble, distant homestead, with its barrel of meal and its cruse of oil, had witnessed living communion between kindred spirits, and presented a scene which had its spring and its reward with God (1 Kings 17: 7–24). But Elijah and Obadiah were not in company with each other in that way. Elijah is too true to his calling to let Obadiah come near to him in spirit or to answer the effort he was making to conciliate him. He does not have to justify his own position, and when he speaks it is brief and to the point. Their meeting was really no meeting at all.
All this is very sad, but you and I need to ask ourselves as to where we stand in the matter. Am I like an Elijah—or am I more akin to an Obadiah? It is not ‘I have not sinned’ or ‘I fear Jehovah greatly’ or ‘I have served God in the past’. No, that is not the question at all. The question is, ‘Am I in Ahab’s court or am I a stranger and pilgrim in this world?’ Then and then only shall we be ready for the proper communion of saints.