1 Kings 18:1-15
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.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab.
Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. 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.) 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.” So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another. 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?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’”
“What have I done wrong,” asked Obadiah, “that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? 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. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ 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. 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. And now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!”
Elijah said, “As the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.”
In this passage there is a clear comparison between Elijah and Obadiah as servants of God. Many may read this passage as comparing Obadiah favourably to Elijah. After all, Obadiah has remained in Israel whilst Elijah left; Obadiah sustained 100 Yahweh supporters, Elijah only himself and two others; Obadiah is seen to act courageously in the midst of the dangerous court of Ahab, Elijah hides for three years. It's easy to see how people can view Obadiah as an example of alternative service to God than the method of Elijah.
But is this really the impression that the author of Kings gives us? The author clearly attests to Obadiah's piety, for in verse three he describes Ahab's palace administrator as 'a devout believer in the Lord.' And yet he has comfortably remained at the centre of court life during this time of persecution. He acts in secret for God, and expects Elijah to recognise and praise his efforts, but he does not believe in carrying things too far. As a follower of Yahweh, he must have been unhappy with Ahab and Jezebel's new order, but clearly he could not bring himself to speak out. There was no need for him to disagree or force his own religious ideas on everyone. This Obadiah spirit is rife within the church today.
'There are scores of Obadiahs everywhere around us, and in the professing church. They know the right, and they are secretly trying to do it; but they say as little about religion as they can. They never rebuke sin. They never confess their true colours. They find pretexts and excuses to satisfy the remonstrances of an uneasy conscience.' (1)
There is a well known saying, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: 'Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.' This is the attitude of Obadiah, and this is the attitude of many in the church today. They think that they can shine their light, and through their actions people will come to know God. In reality, this means they never have to speak out against the practises of the world, they don't have to challenge the status quo, they can privately practise their faith without it interfering with their comfortable lives.
Rather, Scripture tells us, 'How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?' (Romans 10:14) It is not enough to be an Obadiah, secretly serving God, but failing to speak for Him in the public arena.
Because this attitude may start with good intentions, thinking that if we participate in the world's trends and activities, then maybe by our actions we might be able to steady it, make these things Christian. Obadiah had reached a position of great influence, as had others such as Joseph in Pharoah's government, or Daniel in the courts of Nebuchadnezzer, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus. But the differences are stark. These two other examples did not chose to enter into pagan courts of their own accord, and when they were there, they gained their positions through their uncompromising obedience to God who in turn raised them to positions of power. They spoke out in witness of the power of God. Obadiah remained silent and so found himself compromising within the courts of the most wicked king in Israel.
And yet the worst witness to Obadiah is the contrast in reception by Ahab to him and to Elijah. 'Ahab could tolerate [Obadiah], because he never rebuked him. When salt has lost its savour it does not sting though it be rubbed into an open wound.'(2) In contrast, the hatred of Ahab when encountering Elijah is the greatest testimony to the consistency of Elijah's life. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11, 'Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me,' closely followed two verses on by 'you are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.' What would you rather- to loose your savour and be good for nothing, or to spark hatred in the Ahabs of the world?
For Obadiah, the consequence for speaking out for God in Ahab's court was death, of which he was afraid to deliver the message to Ahab. Today, the consequences for sharing the good news of Jesus' life, death and resurrection are not so extreme, simply ridicule and the growing threat of persecution, but yet so many continue to compromise and stay silent for fear of man. We have become so compromised by the privatisation of our faith that Christians will even start to argue alongside the rest of the world, as Obadiah would have done, 'Don't impose your faith on others! Religion should be kept private! No one should force their morality on others!'
Nevertheless, if we stay silent and compromise to the world's standards, the morality of others will simply be enforced. For Obadiah, not challenging Ahab enabled Jezebel to install the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Today, if we do not speak for God's values and kingdom culture, DIY abortion slips through the backdoor, harmful hormone blockers are given to children and teen who feel they were born the wrong gender, marriage and the family are destroyed. And what is worse, if we do not speak out, the world will tolerate us, and think we are no different to them.
As Bonhoeffer said, 'Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.' We cannot explain our silence away with the small secret things we do and seek the recognition and protection of God for. As soon as the world begins to approve of your actions and speak well of you, that's when you must ask if you are not becoming an Obadiah.
(1) Meyer, Elijah, 63-4.
(2) Meyer, Elijah, 68.