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God's Undercover Agent

1 Kings 18:1-16

There is a movie myth about. Have you ever noticed that, in the movies, the secret agent is always good looking, well spoken and highly noticeable? James Bond practically screams “secret agent.” It plays well in Hollywood, but not in real life. The successful secret agent is one who is never noticed.

Something like that shows up in our study today.

(1 Ki 18:1-16 NIV) After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: "Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land." {2} So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria, {3} and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of his palace. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the LORD. {4} While Jezebel was killing off the Lord's prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.) {5} Ahab had said to Obadiah, "Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals." {6} So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another. {7} As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, "Is it really you, my lord Elijah?" {8} "Yes," he replied. "Go tell your master, 'Elijah is here.'" {9} "What have I done wrong," asked Obadiah, "that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? {10} As surely as the LORD your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. {11} But now you tell me to go to my master and say, 'Elijah is here.' {12} I don't know where the Spirit of the LORD may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the LORD since my youth. {13} Haven't you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the LORD? I hid a hundred of the Lord's prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. {14} And now you tell me to go to my master and say, 'Elijah is here.' He will kill me!" {15} Elijah said, "As the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today." {16} So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah.


If anyone’s character is like that of our movie secret agent, it is Elijah – and ill fitted to the part he is. Like most of the prophets, he’s a reluctant one. But we see the source of his greatness in this passage:

  • He has learned – after three years – to trust the Lord. At least, he trusts him a little.
  • More importantly for the purposes of this story, he has learned to be obedient. Obedience is trust in action, the key virtue of the faith.
  • It shows us one thing: courage, for the believer, comes from trust and obedience. Elijah is not naturally an extroverted hero – but he does trust and obey.


Actors know that the role of the hero pays better – but the role of the villain is a better part. Why? Because anyone can imagine himself a hero – we all daydream it – but it takes skill to play the villain. Consider this man Ahab:

·         He knows quite well why this drought has occurred. God has told him, through Elijah. Elijah called the shot; what more evidence do you need?

·         So what does he do about it? He goes out looking for water. How characteristic of human beings! We know the problem, but we aren’t willing to repent – so we try “something else.” This is the spiritual equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

How like us! We feel the judgment of God; we have it proclaimed to us – and what happens??? We run off in another direction. We know who controls this universe, yet we hope that somehow our other direction will turn out to be the right one.

Ahab himself doesn’t believe this. If he really believed that God did not cause this drought, why would he be seeking Elijah?

  • Vengeance? But if Elijah didn’t cause the drought, he’s just a harmless nut case, right?
  • Relief? But how could Elijah relieve what he didn’t cause?

No moth ever went after the flame like Ahab after Elijah. He wants what Elijah has – true righteousness – but is not willing to change to obtain it. That about sums up the human condition.


There is a curious divergence of opinion about the main character of today’s lesson. Obadiah is praised by commentators who are out of copyright – and condemned by current commentators. The older commentators take the Scripture at its word, that Obadiah was a righteous man. The newer ones have a few questions:

  • Why didn’t this righteous man go to Judah, like so many of the priests and Levites? If monks can hide in monasteries, why couldn’t this man go where God was worshiped?
  • But if he had to stay, why didn’t he speak up? After all, he could have been an anonymous martyr, or perhaps even a famous figure. Surely this is a failing?

In short, the complaint is this: Why isn’t Obadiah just like Elijah?

  • He is. Both men are fearful of being killed.
  • He is. Both men are faithful.

His main difference is this: Elijah was called to be a prophet. Obadiah was not.

Why, then, the modern criticism of this servant of God? Perhaps it is that our writers today have missed some things:

  • The church is a body – not a collection of identical parts.
  • God assigns tasks to his people; we don’t pick them out.
  • As he assigns tasks, we must change the way we behave to match those tasks.

Obadiah is a man with a different task. If you want a testimony to his righteousness, you need look no further than Ahab:

  • Ahab knows this man is a righteous man – for he has him in charge of the palace.
  • He knows he is a loyal man – for he sends him out in another direction to search. This man is one who does not need to be watched.

Obadiah, I submit, has learned three things of the practical side of faith.

In the world, not of the world.

Consider his relationship to the worldly authority: King Ahab. We tend in our day to think that “protest movement” is a good thing. Our Lord taught us – remember how Peter caught the fish with the coin in its mouth – that anything not prohibited to us is permitted. Even though we may think it stupid, we are to be obedient subjects to those in authority. Why?

  • First, that we may not cause them to stumble. Why should we place an obstacle in their path to knowing Jesus?
  • Second, because we know who’s really running this world. When we think the world’s rulers so important that we must protest, we forget who is really in charge here.

Why, then, don’t we behave like this? Why are we so fearful of our authorities, and what might happen in our land? It is just that: fear. We have forgotten that “anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.” If he places us in contact with the world, then in contact we should be.

Some of us should be ascetics, who withdraw from the world to the monastery, if only in our own minds. Some of us – but by no means all of us. Most of us are to be salt and light to the world.

Salt and light

Obadiah is a practical man. He hides the prophets of God in a cave. In so doing, he gives us an example of what our Lord was talking about when he told us to be salt and light.

  • These prophets are probably those of the “school of Samuel.” In other words, they are those who are most likely given to preaching, not foretelling the future. By hiding them, Obadiah preserves the word of God (like salt).
  • Salt is also a purifier. By hiding these men, Obadiah maintains the means by which the people might be brought to repentance and therefore purified.
  • Light is that which shows the way. By his character and by hiding these men, Obadiah shows us how much he values that.

Interestingly, light is not the opposite of darkness. Darkness is the absence of light. Just as evil is the corruption of good. Obadiah shows us here that it is sufficient to be righteous – and it is also necessary.

The remnant

A consistent theme of the Old Testament, explicitly proclaimed in the New Testament, is that God purifies his people via “the remnant.” When times are evil, as they are now, it is the remnant that preserves the word of God. That word later breaks out. How, then, do we know if we are “in the remnant?”

  • It is a “for us or against us” position. If you are compromising with the world, you are not in the remnant.
  • It shows in your daily life – by what you are, by what you say, by what you do.
  • You will feel it. There is often a sense – as Obadiah had here – of being “alone.” But do not fear; you are the apple of God’s eye.

The time will come when the remnant will break out, and God will have purified his church. In the meanwhile, we might profitably ask ourselves these questions:

1.            To what are you called? God has given each of us a calling. Most are not called to be preachers, teachers or prophets. But do not fear; all things can be done to the glory of God. Know what you are called for, and do it to God’s glory.

2.            Wherever it is that you are called, are you salt and light there? Are you the one who preserves what is good, true and righteous? Are you the one who exposes what hides in darkness?

3.            Are you for Him or against Him? In the remnant, or wondering what the remnant might be?

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