Whenever I hear the subject of the sealing authority come up, it’s Biblical origin is intertwined with Elijah’s promise to Ahab of drought in 1 Ki 17:1
As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.
This is certainly an attention-getter, but not, I think, the heart of the matter.
(Public service announcement to our unmarried gentlemen readers: Ahab’s problems seem to stem from his marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon (16:31). Ethbaal may mean “with Baal” or perhaps “under Baal’s protection.” Always check your prospective father-in-law’s name. If it’s a theophoric compound of Baal, perhaps you should continue your search.)
1 Ki 17:1 opens up a cycle of stories with two related sets of interactions that stretch through chapter 22 . On one hand, the contest between Israel’s God and Baal is clearly joined and resolved. On a deeper level, these stories tell us about the complexity of the God-prophet-human relationship.
The remainder of chapter 17 consists of three stories. While at the Wadi Cherith (vv. 2-7), Elijah is fed like royalty by God’s winged scavengers, the ravens. Although he is receptive and obedient to the work of the Lord, he is completely passive. It is clear that neither Baal nor his agent, Ahab, can get to Elijah. But is this because Baal is really no-god, or is it simply because Team God has yielded the field?
In the second story, Elijah is equally receptive but less passive (vv. 8-16). Obedient to the word of the Lord, he has traveled to Zarephath, a town located midway between Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, the heart of Baal-country. This sets the scene for the first of a series of deliberate but oblique provocations aimed at Baal.
In Zarapheth Elijah meets up with a widow woman who, like the ravens, is a scavenger. As a sign of the goodness of her heart, she is quite willing to fetch water for a thirsty stranger in a drought-stricken country. She balks only at providing food, because she has only a final meal before death.
Elijah must act, becoming a collaborator by extending the promise of his own support over the widow and her household. His activity bring to fulfillment the promise made to him in v. 9 by God. Elijah is now safely residing right in Baal’s own homeland, albeit dining less sumptuously than before. Although Israel’s God is stealthy at the moment, there’s no doubting his power.
The third story shifts from addressing the potential for death to dealing with the reality of death. The widow’s son dies and she reproaches Elijah with these words (v. 18):
What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!
The widow’s point is consistent with her culture and place in history. Elijah’s presence has attracted divine attention. In godly retaliation for some sin of hers, her son has died.
In this third story, Elijah seizes the initiative. He carries the boy upstairs and utters two rather similar prayers, the first in v. 20:
O Lord my God, have you brought evil even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?
Note that the central accusation is almost identical to the widow’s accusation and it’s coupled with an unsubtle reminder of her hospitality and role in God’s own plans. This is strong language. And in a break from the more widely recognized role of a prophet as speaking the word of God to humans, Elijah has spoken the words of a human to God. The communication between God and humans is now two-way, mediated through the prophet.
In the second prayer, in v. 21, Elijah brings his lead to culmination: “O Lord, my God, let the breath return to the body of this child.” The verb is a jussive with the particle of entreaty. This is a far more deferential prayer than the first, simply expressing the wish that the child’s life return, but it also sets the stage to show just who has the power of life and death, even in Baal’s stronghold.
The amazing thing is what the narrator next says (v. 22): “And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah…” If the subject and object of this sentence were reversed, we would say that Elijah heard the voice of the Lord and we would quite properly understand that Elijah obeyed God. Shall we say the same of the original configuration? Did God obey Elijah?
We should probably be kinder to the theologians. But the idea that God allows us to make certain decisions and then “hears” us through his designated spokesmen is really a marvelous and ennobling response on his part. It’s far more pervasive and persistent than micro-management of the weather. In fact, the “heart” of the sealing authority is another of the many aspects of the love of God, without which we’re really not much at all.