Eliyahu’s retreat into the desert was filled with angst. He was a defeated prophet, whose mission, while initially successful, had not transformed Israel’s religious life. Ultimately, he had failed to eradicate the worship of Baal and, as a consequence, he was hounded and beleaguered, fleeing for his life from the wicked queen, Izevel (Jezebel), who sought vengeance for the lives of her idolatrous prophets. It was not just that he was tired, hungry and thirsty, he was spiritually drained – a prophet who saw his mission as a failure – a man who despaired the continuation of his life. (See Targum Yonathon – verse 19:5.)
After being revived by an angel, Eliyahu began a forty-day journey to Horeb, the mountain where Moshe had met God. When Eliyahu reached Horeb, the word of the Lord came to him and asked him: “Why are you here, Eliyahu?” (Verse 9) “He replied: ‘I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” (Verses 10;14)
What was God’s response to Elijah’s declaration? “The Lord said to him: ‘Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Yehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet (tahtecha).'” (Verse 15) Professor Uriel Simon views God’s response as a renewal of Eliyahu’s prophetic role so that he will have the strength to carry out his remaining prophetic missions. (Kriyah Sifrutit Bamikra: Siporei Neviim, p. 259)
On the other hand, one rabbinic tradition (Eretz Yisrael, 3rd century) treats God’s response in verse 15 as a rejection of Eliyahu’s role as prophet: “Eliyahu insisted on the honor due to God, but did not insist on the honor due to the son (Israel)… the expression “tahtecha – in your place” can only mean that I (God) am not pleased with your service [since you have only bad things to say about My people Israel].” (Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Bo Parsha 1, Horowitz Rabin ed. p. 4; see Rashi on verse 15)
According to this passage, a prophet’s role is not only to reprimand his people for their sins. He must also defend them when they are in trouble. This tradition regards Elijah as derelict in this role, requiring replacement.
Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 29 (Eretz Yisrael, 8th century) offers a similar approach. It understands Elijah’s complaint that Israel has abrogated God’s covenant (brit) as a protest that the people did not carry out “brit milah – circumcision”. God treats this complaint with rancor and as a result requires Eliyahu to be present at every brit milah to prove to him that the people of Israel are diligent about the observance of this mitzvah. This explains the origin of the custom of having a special chair at the circumcision ceremony known as “kisei Eliyahu – Elijah’s chair” which sometimes also serves as the chair in which the sandek – the one who hold the baby during the brit sits. (Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim uMinhagim, p. 182)
No matter how we look at God’s response to Eliyahu, two things are clear. God expects His prophets to be loyal defenders of His people even in hard times when the prophet must also be the one to chasten the people for their transgressions, but perhaps the more important lesson both for the prophet and for all of us is that loyalty to God means never to give in to despair.