Before the end of King Solomon’s reign, much of Israel plunged into the spiritual darkness and chaos of idolatry and great wickedness. For the next 100 years, the Lord sent such prophets as Ahijah, Azariah, Hanani, and Jehu to preach repentance and warn Israel and its leaders.
When Ahab ascended to the throne of the Northern Kingdom, faithfulness to the living God descended to a new low (see 1 Kgs. 16:30–31). Into this spiritual abyss the Lord sent Elijah, a prophet whose influence upon the life of the Israelites has lasted more than 2,870 years. To this day he is still an invited guest at the annual Jewish Passover meal (see Bible Dictionary, “Elijah,” 664). Elijah’s mission was to revive the spirituality of his people. The manner in which he did this demonstrates how signs and miracles relate to the development of faith in Jesus Christ.
Our introduction to Elijah comes when he suddenly appears before King Ahab with this bold announcement: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kgs. 17:1). The wording of this decree suggests that Elijah had power from God like Nephi son of Helaman, who did “smite the earth with famine … according to the wickedness of this people” and who received the promise of God that “whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven” (Hel. 10:6–7).
Despite the onset of the drought according to Elijah’s word, King Ahab’s heart did not soften. As the drought worsened, he became angry and ordered Elijah arrested. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, rounded up many of the prophets of God and had them slaughtered (see 1 Kgs. 18:4). Consequently, the Lord warned Elijah to hide in a desolate place east of the Jordan River. There the Lord provided him with food brought each morning and evening by birds and with water from a brook (see 1 Kgs. 17:2–6). Soon the brook dried up, and the Lord commanded Elijah to journey northwest to Zarephath, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the gentile nation of Sidon. He was told to board in the home of a “widow woman” there. This experience became another opportunity to nurture faith in others and see it develop.
As Elijah approached Zarephath, he recognized the woman as she gathered sticks for a fire. She and her son were facing starvation, with but one last serving of food remaining. He called to her, “Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink” and “Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand” (1 Kgs. 17:10–11). When she confessed her desperate situation to Elijah, he tested her faith: “Fear not … but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and … the barrel of meal shall not waste … until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth” (1 Kgs. 17:13–14). Her response to this request and promise is quite remarkable—so remarkable that the Lord used her as an example of faith during His mortal ministry (see Luke 4:24–26): “And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah” (1 Kgs. 17:15). The Lord honored her obedience by providing flour and oil for the three of them for about three years (see Luke 4:25).
Much like this woman, many Church members today pay tithing in full, not knowing how to pay for essential food. Others hearken to the voice of the Spirit in making great personal sacrifices to serve the Lord and keep His commandments. The Lord honors them by blessing their acts of faith with experiences that nurture their faith (see Ether 12:6).
Not long after the miracle of the oil and flour, the widow’s son suddenly became sick and died, a great trial of faith. She complained to Elijah and the Lord, not understanding why her son had been taken. She was filled with despair and guilt. This new test, however, provided one more opportunity for her faith in God and His prophet to grow.
Touched by the woman’s sorrow, Elijah asked the Lord to raise her son from the dead, and the Lord granted his request. When the woman saw her son alive, in Elijah’s arms, she could not restrain her joy and expressed her feelings of strengthened faith: “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth” (1 Kgs. 17:24).
In this woman we see an example of the results of faith, even in its imperfect stages. She exercised a particle of faith in caring for Elijah and had not completely cast it out by unbelief when her son died, yet her faith needed nurturing. Her son’s death and the miracle that followed strengthened her faith. She had experimented on the word and reaped its rich rewards (see Alma 32:27–43).
The Lord commanded Elijah to revisit King Ahab. Their meeting was tense and confrontational. Ahab defiantly accused Elijah of causing the drought, but Elijah rebuffed him, saying, “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim” (1 Kgs. 18:18).
Elijah proposed that the issue be settled before all Israel by a contest between Jehovah and Baal, and Ahab agreed. Elijah said, “If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him,” hoping that a sign from heaven would nurture the faith of his people (1 Kgs. 18:21). What unfolded is one of the most impressive displays of divine power in all scripture.
Elijah had two bullocks, or oxen, brought to Mount Carmel. He suggested that the priests of Baal slaughter an ox and place it on an altar while he would do the same on another altar. “Call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord,” Elijah confidently told those who had assembled, “and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God” (1 Kgs. 18:24). And all the people agreed that such would be a fair test.
The priests of Baal called from morning until noon, but there was no answer. Elijah mocked them, saying they should shout louder for perhaps God is deep in thought or busy. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened. The priests cried out louder, slashing themselves with knives, yet nothing happened. Finally, Elijah called the people close to him. They watched as he built an altar to the Lord from 12 stones, dug a trench, and drenched it with water.
He then humbly called upon God for his people, “Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God” (1 Kgs. 18:37). The fire of the Lord descended from heaven, burning up the offering and leaving nothing but a hole in the ground. The people fell on their faces and exclaimed, “The Lord, he is the God” (1 Kgs. 18:39). With this renewal of faith, clouds came, and a torrential rain fell. Elijah had successfully nurtured his people’s weak faith.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, however, were only convinced that Elijah must be put to death, so Elijah fled into the wilderness (see 1 Kgs. 19:1–3). Feeling discouraged, Elijah experienced one more important lesson about faith and miracles.
As Elijah rested in a cave, the Lord sent a great destructive wind, then an earthquake, and finally a fire. In each marvelous display of divine power, the record states that “the Lord was not in [it]” (see 1 Kgs. 19:11–12). Finally, there came “a still small voice” in which the Lord manifested himself (see 1 Kgs. 19:12–18).
A friend of mine, faced with the sudden death of a close family member, struggled to prepare a talk for the funeral. Finding a time and place to be alone, he asked the Lord for a manifestation of the departed loved one. As he prayed, a still, small voice spoke to his mind, “And what would you know then that you don’t know now? Be faithful and you will continue to be filled with light and truth.”
He learned, like Elijah, that the “Spirit of God speaking to the spirit of man has power to impart truth with greater effort and understanding than … by personal contact even with heavenly beings.”1
In contemplating the role of marvelous manifestations in strengthening our faith in Jesus Christ, we might consider the following:
Signs come according to the will of God, not the will of man (see D&C 63:10). The miracles, whether for Elijah, Ahab, the widow, or the Israelites, were clearly performed according to the will of the Lord.
Signs cannot be the sole basis for faith in the Lord (see Alma 32:17–19). Ahab saw the same signs as many others but was not converted to the Lord.
Signs can strengthen those who already believe (see Hel. 14:28–29). The widow of Zarephath was a believer whose convictions were strengthened by miracles. The faith of the Israelites rallied when they saw the fire from heaven.
Elijah sought to nurture faith in Jehovah through signs and miracles from the Lord. Yet seeing the Lord’s power manifest in spectacular events is usually not as beneficial to conversion as the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, which come by obedience and sacrifice and are born of faith in Jesus Christ.
President Heber J. Grant taught: “There is but one path of safety to the Latter-day Saints, and that is the path of duty. … It is not marvelous manifestations … that will save you and me, but it is the keeping of the commandments of God, the living the life of a Latter-day Saint.”2 It was the widow of Zarephath who experienced long-lasting conversion. Her obedience and faith preceded her miracles. Elijah’s use of miracles teaches us that signs can confirm a person’s faith in the Lord, but they are rarely useful in causing the wicked to truly repent and be converted.
More on this topic: See Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Handful of Meal and a Little Oil,”Ensign, May 1996, 29–31; Jonathan H. Stephenson, “I Have a Question: What are we to understand about signs and miracles?”Ensign, Dec. 1994, 60–61; David H. Madsen, “No Other Gods before Me,”Ensign, Jan. 1990, 48–52; Spencer W. Kimball, “Keep the Lines of Communication Strong,”Ensign, July 1972, 37–39.