One of the most famous incidents in the life of Elijah is his defeat of 450 prophets of Ba’al in a contest to determine whose god would send fire on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:20-40). Immediately after this great triumph, while in the midst of a drought and with nary a cloud in the sky, Elijah dismisses King Ahab in anticipation of a torrential downpour (I Kings 18:41). The prophet then assumes the fetal position (I Kings 18:42) and instructs his unnamed servant to inspect the horizon seven times (I Kings 18:43). After the first six trips prove fruitless, the servant returns a seventh time having witnessed the smallest of signs (I Kings 18:44).
It came about at the seventh time, that he [the servant] said, “Behold, a cloud as small as a man’s hand is coming up from the sea.” And he [Elijah] said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, so that the heavy shower does not stop you.’” (I Kings 18:44 NASB)Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) summarizes:
Elijah goes to the top of Carmel and prostrates himself, with his head between his knees, in a position of prayer. The purpose of this action becomes evident as he bids his servant seven times to look out to the sea. When the boy observes at his seventh attempt a small rain cloud forming over the Mediterranean it is evident that the drought is about to come to an end. (Sweeney, First and Second Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 229-30)The only evidence the servant produces is a seemingly inconsequential cloud (I Kings 18:44) yet this is enough confirmation to satisfy Elijah.
When James recounts the event, he attributes the downpour to the prophet’s prayers (James 5:17-18). August H. Konkel (b. 1948) interprets:
A sevenfold repetition indicates the fullness of prayer (I Kings 18:43-44); each time the servant ascends one of the peaks of Carmel for the best view. At the first sign of a small cloud the company begins its descent from the mountain lest the rain bog them in the valley below. As Ahab rides furiously towards Jezreel, Elijah runs on ahead [I Kings 18:46]. Running before the king indicates service to the king, now with the intent that the king will fulfill his proper mission in service to God. (Konkel, 1 & 2 Kings (The NIV Application Commentary), 301)Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) applies:
Unlike the answer to the prayer at the altar, the answer to this prayer didn’t come at once. Seven times Elijah sent his servant to look toward the Mediterranean Sea and report any indications of a storm gathering, and six of those times the servant reported nothing. The prophet didn’t give up but prayed a seventh time, and the servant saw a tiny cloud coming from the sea. This is a good example for us to follow as we “watch and pray” and continue to intercede until the Lord sends the answer...The little cloud wasn’t a storm, but it was the harbinger of the rains that were to come. (Wiersbe, Be Responsible (I Kings): Being Good Stewards of God’s Gifts, 169)The precursor to rain is a natural one, namely a cloud. Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel (1927-2011) define:
The Hebrew word for “cloud” (’āb) refers to a thick, dark, rainy cloud mass (cf. Judges 5:4; II Samuel 23:4). Ahab’s need for haste in the face of the oncoming cloudburst can be appreciated when one realizes that his chariot must travel seventeen miles through the accumulating mud and across the quickly swelling dry wadis. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], 1 Samuel-2 Kings (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 779)The cloud is “as small as a man’s hand” (I Kings 18:44 NASB). In her classic devotional Streams in the Desert, L.B. Cowman (1870-1960) remarks:
“A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (1 Kings 18:44). What a fitting description, for a man's hand had been raised in prayer to God before the rains came. (Cowman, Streams in the Desert: 366 Daily Devotional Readings, 176)Other authors writing to a popular audience have also found symbolism in the cloud’s comparison to a hand. Clark Strand (b. 1957) sees:
The cloud witnessed by Elijah’s servant is very small—the tiniest cloud you could see, just like a little hand coming up over the horizon. So small is it, in fact, that it might almost seem insignificant, if it weren’t for the fact that it is shaped like a hand. That makes it intimate, and that intimacy gives Elijah an intimation of things to come. When it pops up from the blank horizon of the sea, immediately he leaps up. (Strand, How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, 109)Craig B. Polenz (b. 1948) concurs:
There is a small cloud like a man’s hand on yonder horizon that is rising out of the sea, which is a type of our humanity (I Kings 18:44a). By injecting the human element of a hand, I believe the divine suggestion is that the things such as prolonged draughts, hopelessness, and bitter disappointment must acquiesce to the divinely empowered, small hand of a man. (Polenz, The Chronicles of Elijah: To Jericho and Beyond God’s Path of Enlightenment, 28)The text’s emphasis, however, is on the cloud’s size, or lack thereof, not its shape. It uses a double description. First, it is described as “small” (ASV, CEV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV) or “little” (ESV, KJV, MSG, NLT, NRSV, RSV).
Then the servant adds the simile “as a man’s hand” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, RSV). More modern translations use the equally accurate but more inclusive language of a “person’s hand” (NRSV) or “someone’s hand” (MSG).
A similar comparison occurred around Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1917. Coal miners had begun dipping their graham crackers in marshmallow fluff. Noticing that he was selling an excessive number of graham crackers to the miners, Earl Mitchell Sr. (1884-1945), an industrious salesman for Chattanooga Bakery, investigated and decided to combine the two ingredients into a single product. Legend has it that during a moonlit night, Mitchell asked how the product should be packaged. Noting that it would fit into the average lunch pail, a coal miner held up circled fingers and framed the moon to indicate its size. With that, the Moon Pie was born. Despite taking its name from the moon, much like Elijah’s servant, the miner was indicating size, not shape.
The palm sized cloud is minuscule particularly against the backdrop of the vast sky. But it is enough for the prophet. Choon-Leong Seow (b. 1952) relates:
The servant sees a little cloud “no bigger than a person’s hand” arising from the horizon. The approaching cloud, though appearing small in the distance, is reminiscent of the cloud of glory that represented the Lord’s presence at the mountain of God in the time of Moses. (Seow, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Tobit, Judith (The New Interpreter’s Bible), 137)Interpreting natural phenomena as divine omens is common among religious people. Piotr Sadowski (b.1957) philosophizes:
Sometimes...some reactions produced by non-human systems can be interpreted as “signs” by persons who regard certain natural phenomena, such as the strike of a thunderbolt, a flood, an earthquake, or a pestilence as resulting not just from physical causes but from the actions of some purposeful, supernatural intelligence, variously identified as “god,” “providence,” or “fate.” Interpreted in this light natural phenomena begin to assume human-like characteristics, as when the prophet Elijah’s prayer for rain is answered with “Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand” (I Kings 18:44). Because having a purposeful design about things presupposes an autonomous system equipped with metainformational cognitive faculties, for religious persons the entire universe, created by such a superior being, can indeed be filled with “signs” rather than simply with physical states. (Sadowski, From Interaction to Symbol: A systems view of the evolution of signs and communication (Iconicity in Language and Literature), 69)The belief in a personal God creates the hope that the deity is attempting to communicate. Joyce Meyer (b. 1943) encourages:
If you and I could just look at our situation really hard, I am sure we could always find a cloud of hope at least the size of a man’s hand. No matter how things may look right now, I am sure that there must be at least that much hope we can hang onto. (Meyer, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: Overcoming Life’s Struggles Through Worship, 175)Why does the servant describe the cloud? What does the analogy “as small as a man’s hand” add to the story? How would you have described the cloud had you been Elijah’s servant? Do you believe that God speaks through natural occurrences? When have you gained confidence from a seemingly negligible sign? Why do you think that both the king and the servant followed Elijah’s instructions to vacate the vicinity?
Elijah believes in his prayer so much that he employs a lookout. He puts his money where his mouth is, placing his reputation (invaluable to a prophet) on the line. And his faith is rewarded.
Iain W. Provan (b. 1957) elucidates:
It is a long wait but at last a cloud as small as a man’s hand is seen rising from the sea. Though small, it is enough to assure Elijah that the drought is over (cf. Luke 12:54), and after warning Ahab to leave or get wet, he races him to Jezreel in the power of the LORD. As we might expect, in view of the story so far, he wins. It is a fitting conclusion to the chapter. (Provan, 1 and 2 Kings (New International Biblical Commentary), 139)Elijah’s forecast is correct marking a rare instance in which a cloud serves as a good omen. The small hand-sized cloud represents the first fruits of the heavy rains that follow (I Kings 18:45).
Jesse C. Long, Jr. (b. 1953) praises:
For Elijah, an unsurpassed stalwart of faith, even a small cloud is enough to know that Yahweh is about to send rain. Ahab is told to hurry back before the rains mire his travel. The sky grows black, the winds pick up, and a heavy rain begins. Ahab sets out in his chariot, and the power of the Lord seizes Elijah, enabling him to run ahead of Ahab to Jezreel (the location of Ahab’s winter palace, not far from Carmel). (Long, 1 & 2 Kings (College Press NIV Commentary), 218)Richard Nelson (b. 1945) reveals:
The climax comes in I Kings 18:45 with a colorful description of the storm’s sudden onset. The dramatic tension drains away in the denouement of Elijah’s spirit-driven twenty-five kilometer run to Jezreel (I Kings 18:46). Once more, Ahab, who has been either passive or absent during much of the chapter, simply reacts to events. (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 120)The large faith generated from such a small sign has inspired many. James Joyce (1882-1941) titled the eighth story in his Dubliners collection “A Little Cloud” and the expression “Cloud Like a Man’s Hand” developed from this narrative (I Kings 18:41-45).
David L. Jeffrey (b. 1941) traces:
The expression is often used simply to portend the imminence of greater things. It is of little moment in medieval and Renaissance literature, but emerges to prominence in Protestant preaching of the Puritan tradition in connection with meditations on prayer “in faith believing” (see Matthew Poole [1624-1679]’s commentary in his Annotations upon the Holy Bible; also on James 5:7), and in Sunday sermons on Elijah and Elisha such as Cytherea reflects sorrowfully as she ponders being forced into marriage in Thomas Hardy [1840-1928]’s Desperate Remedies. (Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, 148)Elijah is able to see the great potential in such a small sign as he views the world with the eyes of faith ( Matthew 5:8; Ephesians 1:18). He takes action before the sign comes to fulfillment, instructing the king to get while the getting’s good (I Kings 18:44).
John W. Olley (b. 1938) describes:
Elijah is confident as he hears with the ears of faith: there is the sound of a heavy rain – but as yet no cloud (I Kings 18:41, 43). He expectantly commands the king to go up, eat and drink...that is, participate in the meal associated with the sacrifice, here signifying for Ahab a reaffirming of the covenant with Yahweh. (Olley, The Message of Kings (Bible Speaks Today), 177)Gary Inrig (b. 1943) adds:
Elijah’s confidence that God would answer this prayer was so great that this was all the evidence he needed. He sent the servant to advise Ahab to head for home as quickly as possible, before the storm overtook him. Torrential rain after a drought presented the likelihood of swollen streams, mudslides, and flash floods that would make charioteering dangerous. (Inrig, I & II Kings (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 150)Elijah’s faith does not merely lead to belief. It transforms into action.
When have you taken an action based upon your faith in an as yet unrealized occurrence? What action do you need to be taking in faith now? How do you know that a sign is from God? How much evidence do you need before acting upon a sign from God?
“Signs must be read with caution. The history of Christendom is replete with instances of people who misread the signs.” - Sheldon Vanauken (1914-1996), A Severe Mercy, p. 190