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 amazing contest results in a miracle from God and the slaughter of the priests of Baal, after all - so he must be doing God's will, right?
The Bible is the word of God, and we should pay attention to both what it 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. What did he expect there? No doubt this showdown and reversal of events had changed everything, and put him in a prominent position. Surely Elijah believed he was going to be Ahab's spiritual advisor and the arch-bishop of Israel. Elijah believed he'd struck a resounding blow for God. Then Jezebel happened...
Is the mighty man of God who calls fire from heaven and fed by ravens (or Arabs!) at God's hand and raised children from the dead and supplied 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?
Is it perhaps that Elijah sees in the threat of Jezebel the menace of the evil forces lurking behind her? And does this revelation causes him to recognize he's a much smaller fish in a bigger pond? As in the Lord of the Rings, where anyone who puts on the ring can see evil and can be seen by evil, Elijah picked a fight with the devil on his own initiative and reaped the consequences. Until Jezebel, Elijah never had to confront spiritual evil. This juxtaposes 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, something was lost in the cave. God's demonstrations of empty power must've stung 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.
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 mauled 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. Elijah brought only judgement, while Elisha demonstrated more of an ability to provide solutions to Israel's problems. It seems Elisha recognized the responsibility that came with his powers and chose to use them wisely.
It wouldn't be the first time in Israel's history that divinely appointed supernatural power is handled badly. Samson used his spiritual strength to impress the girlies and avenge personal vendettas and create trouble. In many ways, he and Elijah shared a similar enjoyment of trouble-making. And, like Samson, Elijah was stopped by a woman.
Elijah's merciless violence 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 militarily. Like Elijah, Jehu reacts angrily to those who fail to show the required level of deference [2 Kings 9:33] and bloodily exterminated 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].
I'm tired of sermons and articles that describe the story of Elijah as one of triumphant righteous judgement for the moral upper hand: coming to this conclusion is, in my opinion, the result of a shallow and immature theology, in which the "faithful" sees himself as morally superior.
Instead, I see the story up until Elijah's re-commissioning as a cautionary tale in a form that juxtaposes outward religious/spiritual success with inner pride/vanity to counsel the reader to develop the character to match or exceed the gifts and calling awarded to him by God. It's the same caution that the story of Samson makes. 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, it's a burdensome responsibility that must be born with prayer and wisdom. The kind of vanity I see Elijah exercising is common among many ministry and church leaders: because they serve an all-knowing all-powerful God, then they automatically assume they deserve respect and to be paid tribute to.
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.
There is much more to say in this matter, but in the interest of efficacy I'll end by making one last point. Elijah's vanity is hard to distinguish as it exists in a sort of blind spot for those who pursue piety.