There is a sound of rebuke in these words. They seem to imply that the lonely mountain of Horeb was not the place in which God expected to find such a servant as Elijah, and that there should be no indefinite tarrying, no lingering without an aim in such a solitude.
As you read the familiar history you see how the record of the prophet's retirement and his vision in Horeb is a record, first of all, of reaction after fierce conflict; it exhibits the picture of a strong man in a moment of weakness ready to give up the hopeless struggle, crying to God, "It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life;" and then it shows us how God dealt with him in that solitude; we hear the Divine voice pleading in him again, bearing its Divine witness, putting its searching questions, teaching him the universal lesson that despondency, weakness, solitude, shrinking and retiring, if they have any place in our life, are only for a time, and must not be allowed to rule in it.
That Divine vision which came to Elijah in the recesses of the mountain is, in fact, the voice of God summoning him back to the duties that were waiting for him, and the renewal of his strength for the new work he had to do. And the interest of such a vision never fails, because, like Elijah, all men come to times when they too lie under the juniper tree in the wilderness longing to be set free from the burden which is too heavy for them, be it the burden of some call, or work, or duty, or of resistance to some temptation, or the struggle against sin or vice. It comes to all of us, and not once only, but many times over, this hour of darkness; and it will continue to come so long as the flesh is weak. And it is at such moments that a man is the better for going with the prophet into this Horeb, the mount of God, making Elijah's vision his own vision, and renewing his strength, at the same Divine source. How often it happens to men, to boys, to all alike, that they flee into the desert, away from the post of present duty, away from the face of difficulties which they cannot or will not stand up against, away from the moments of trial and discipline. And, seeing that our life is not and cannot be a solitary thing, seeing that the pulsations of each individual's life are creating other pulsations which answer them back in other lives, we know not where or how many, whenever we thus shrink away from our duty, when we turn our back upon it, or despond about it, when we become deaf to the higher calls, we are, in fact, crying to God to be relieved of our service to Him and to our fellows. And it is a happy thing for our life if He does not answer us according to our cry, and let us go into the wilderness, and leave us alone there.
This voice, following us with the question, "What doest them here?" is the evidence that God has not abandoned us.
"What doest thou here, Elijah?" How often must this voice have followed the monk into his solitude, refusing to be silenced, piercing through all the false notions about a man's relationship to his fellow-men, warning each soul that it cannot separate itself from the great tide of universal life.
And the voice comes to us, the same warning voice of God, whenever we stand aloof and let the tide around us run on anyhow, as if we didn't care how it ran, or whenever in obedience to any impulse, whether of selfishness or of timidity, we try to persuade ourselves that some duty may be left alone.
"What doest thou here, Elijah?" The quality of our life depends on the answer we give to such spiritual questioning day by day; for the Divine voices are never silent.
"What doest thou here?" The voice cries to us when we linger in the neighbourhood of any sin, or when we waste our opportunities in some form of idleness, or when we stand by in cold or timid indifference, refusing help or consolation to any soul which seems to need it.
"What doest thou here?" It is possible that some of us hardly like to shape our answer in plain words lest we might have to say: "I am here lingering in my present way of life, not because I feel it to be the right way, but because it is the easy way, and I cannot bring myself to face the harder and more manly course of duty. I hear the voice; I cannot get away from it; it haunts me with its inquiries, when my heart is hot within me, as it is sometimes, while yet I am burying the light that is in my soul." If it should be so with any of you, consider, I pray you, how by such hanging back you strengthen the force of evil in the world and weaken the good.
As the hour of reaction, weakness, flight, came to Elijah, so we must expect it to come to any of us; but the aim and purpose of our life should be that in such an hour we may be able to answer our Heavenly Father when He questions us, as Elijah was able to answer: "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts." If we live as those who are jealous for God and His law, letting it be known and felt that we are thus jealous for His honour, not one of us could fail to make the life around us in some degree better, brighter, happier.
It is in this way that he who is strong and true makes truth and honour and uprightness stronger in those beside him; it is in this way that he who is industrious, as a duty, makes industry more prevalent; it is in this way that he who shows his hatred of impurity makes the atmosphere pure in his society.
And in so far as any of you are acting in this way you are doing a prophet's work, and you, too, may claim to have been jealous for the Lord God of Hosts. So the youngest boy and the oldest man may become fellow- labourers -- [Greek text] -- fellow-labourers in the harvest-field of God, and it is a great privilege to claim.
But the blessing of it is greater still. Very often, if you are known to be thus jealous, even your presence will banish sin, silencing the evil tongue, strengthening the weaker brother, and making the sunshine of a new life to shine all round you.
But what if sometimes you feel that you are not equal to all this? if when the voice cries, "What doest thou here?" you have no answer to give? It is good for us in such a case to turn and see how God dealt with His prophet, how He made him come forth and stand on the mount before him. The Lord passed over him, revealing His presence in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, revealing it yet more intimately in the sound of the still small voice. So He sent Him out again with a new commission; and so we, too, may learn our lesson, if we care to learn it. And the lesson is this, that God renews our wavering strength, that He lifts up our drooping spirit, and opens our dull eyes and gives us afresh the hearing ear, by communion with Himself. In the solitude of the mount of God, through the symbols of His power, and in the sound of the inner voices, in meditation, in prayer, we may find those refreshing influences which give us new strength, new thoughts, new notions of God and duty, and send us out afresh to do His work in new service to Him.
We may follow His teaching to Elijah a little further. The new message to him began, "Return on thy way" -- do such and such things. The new message is, in fact, just as always, a new call to old duties -- "Return on thy way." And so it is for you and me. After the vision of God comes the plain and homely work to do, as we walk in old ways, and have to meet all our old dangers and difficulties. Has any one of us ever shrunk from any post of duty in life, or strayed from any straight course? Then if God has in His mercy visited us with the warning call, "What doest thou here?" or laid the call of a new message upon us, it is almost sure to have been a call to return and take the straight path, or to take our stand at the deserted post. And if it should ever happen to us that the duty which looks too hard is, as indeed it happens very often, some duty of our social life, should we feel as if the world were against us, and we were standing alone, let us not forget God's word of final encouragement to his prophet, "Yet have I left me seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed to Baal."
It is a word for all time. If ever you are fighting for the good, and growing weary in the fight, the thought may rise in you that you seem to be fighting alone, and that everything is against you, just because you cannot see the seven thousand who are in the same ranks, and on your side.
In the darkest hour of Israel's history we are thus told of an indefinite multitude who had stood firm in the faith of their fathers, untouched and untainted by adverse influence, and the recollection of it should serve to strengthen and encourage every individual who is really jealous for that which is good.
Let us, then, take the warning, and nurse it as a gift of God, and go forward where duty calls us, sometimes faint, it may be, and sometimes weary, but still pursuing.