It amazes me how many sermons I've heard and articles I've read that describe the showdown on Mount Carmel as a triumph for God in such terms that the audience would cry out a resounding "hurrah!" at the fate of unrepentant sinners, and how this should inspire us to be uncompromisingly single-minded in the pursuit of forcefully reminding the unchurched that they're in the wrong. Elijah's does God's will, right? And the bad priests get slaughtered and everyone worships God, right? With an example like this, we can declare boldly how God resorts to violently coercing sinners to repent, and Christians will be proved right in the end.
You'll be surprised how many articles and sermons there are whose main throughline follows this argument. This, in my opinion, the result of a shallow and immature theology, in which the "faithful" sees himself as morally superior.
We ought to pay attention to both the Bible states and omits.
God didn't instruct Elijah to have a spiritual contest with the priests of Baal. [1 Kings 18:1,2]. God didn't even tell him to argue the case for holiness or righteousness, just that he should meet with Ahab and rain would be returned. But Elijah sees himself as the last one - the final hero - in spite of being told otherwise [1 Kings 18:22, 1 Kings 18: 12-14]. In his mind, he's the man of the hour, and he's going to put things right. He commands Ahab to summon the Baalites and Asherahites [1 Kings 18:19]. Elijah is convicted of his own self-righteousness [1 Kings 18:27]. Elijah's gospel is a violent one and ends in the death of the idolatrous priests [1 Kings 18:40]. Then Elijah does something unusual. Instead of praying for the rain to return or simply trusting the Lord to do what He said, Elijah takes up a mystical position and keeps it until clouds form [1 Kings 18:42-44]. Let me ask you: since when did God require mystical positions? Who did Elijah actually think was responsible for bringing back the rain - him or God? After all these victories, Elijah was pumped up with triumph, and took the vanguard of Ahab's caravan all the way back to the royal capital. Why did he head toward the royal city rather than go back to the Shunnamite woman or return to the desert? What did he expect at the royal household? No doubt this showdown and reversal of events had changed everything, and put him in a prominent position. Perhaps Elijah believed he was going to be Ahab's spiritual advisor, the arch-bishop of Israel, and God would be worshipped with his oversight. Then Jezebel happened...
We know from previous stories in the Bible that God allows the anointing of supernatural power to be exercised, even when the heart-condition of the person exercising them isn't pure or in tune with God's will. Abraham and Ishmael. Joseph. Moses striking the rock. Balaam. Samson. God doesn't take away His anointing or their powers, but He allows them to reap the consequences of their misuse.
Is Elijah - the "only righteous man of God", who calls fire from heaven and is fed by ravens (or Arabs!), raises children from the dead, and supplies never-ending grain-meal to a poor widow - terrified by an angry queen's death-threats? Or is there more to this threat than meets the eye?
I propose that Elijah sees in the threat of Jezebel the menace of the evil forces lurking behind her. Such a revelation would cause him to recognize he's a much smaller fish in a bigger pond. As in the Lord of the Rings, anyone who puts on the ring can see evil and evil can see them, Elijah picks a fight with the devil and reaps the consequences. Until Jezebel, Elijah never had to confront spiritual evil. This is juxtaposed by Jesus' desert experience.
If so, this would explain why Elijah was overwhelmed and crushed and fled, relinquishing all that he hoped to accomplish.
I tend to feel that rather than being encouraged, Elijah lost something in the cave at Mount Horeb. God's demonstrations of empty power must've baffled someone who invested so much value and importance into exercising spiritual power. I tend to believe that God's gentle whispering voice was a deliberate act to bring something more than the words to Elijah's attention. We don't know if Elijah comprehends this - as with so much else in the OT, the protagonist's internal dialogue isn't made clear.
God blows up his delusions of grandeur [1 Kings 19:15-18]. God strips Elijah, not of his power, but of his status by ordering him to pass on his anointing to others and to take a disciple. Later, Elijah will go on to burn soldiers with fire from heaven. He's still severe.
It's interesting to note, that on his way to carry out his second prophetic assignment, Elisha (who was Elijah's disciple and "son") responds to taunting with the same fiery indignation that Elijah did, and bears maul 42 insolent youths to death. But Elisha never again cursed anyone from his own lips unless it was uttered by God first and uses his powers to bring about relief and rescue in one form or another. Elisha demonstrated more responsiveness than Elijah to Israel's needs. Could it be that Elisha recognized that with great power comes great responsibility, and great servanthood?
Elijah's violent spirituality released a spirit of Yahwism, which resulted in an age of tyranny and genocide spearheaded by King Jehu, and in the weakening of his kingdom's military influence. Like Elijah, Jehu reacts angrily to those who are insolent [2 Kings 9:33] and bloodily exterminates Ahab's legacy, which no doubt served his political and religious ambitions. It would seem that God wasn't impressed nor accepted it as a tribute [Hosea 1:4].
The story of Elijah up to God's re-commissioning in the cave could be seen as a cautionary tale where outward religious/spiritual success is juxtaposed by inward ambition/vanity with the purpose of counselling us to develop the character to match or exceed the gifts and calling awarded to us by God. Like Samson, Elijah's supernatural power isn't earned or deserved - but he has to earn the wisdom to use it properly. Being awarded spiritual power isn't a sign of God's approval.
A further point which is worth noting is that the Bible describes the 'spirit of Elijah' not as a whirlwind of divinely-appointed destruction of the wicked, but rather a manifestation of the Holy Spirit bearing witness of the divine nature of the family [Malachi 4:6] and an archetypal person who heralds God's coming and sets in motion widespread repentance. This raises the question of just what God had in mind for Elijah to do.