Elijah: As Human As We Are – Exhaustion, Depression and God’s Answer
THE SCRIPTURE: 1 Kings 19:1-18
“When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel everything Elijah had done, including the way he had killed all the prophets of Baal. 2 So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”
3 Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. 4 Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”
5 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree. But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” 6 He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again.
7 Then the angel of the Lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”
8 So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. 9 There he came to a cave, where he spent the night.
But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”
11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied again, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”
15 Then the Lord told him, “Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. 16 Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet. 17 Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha! 18 Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!”
- Ahab reports to his wife, Jezebel, what had happened on Mount Carmel. She showed that she was really in charge and vowed with a strong oath that Elijah would die as well.
- How did Elijah react? Most of our translations say that he “feared”. This is based on some early manuscripts (e.g Greek translation of the OT) but the Hebrew text just says that he “saw”. So, KJV “and when he, Elijah, saw that, he arose and went for his life”. That’s a more neutral word – so what really was Elijah’s emotion? It could have been fear but equally could have been disappointment – that after such a great victory over the idol Baal, the king, Ahab, and the people were still not going to follow the Lord and His word. After the victory, Ahab should have been like other godly kings and let Elijah become the prophetic voice to him and the nation. That didn’t happen – how deeply disappointing.
- Whatever the cause, Elijah demonstrated real signs of depression – he left his servant at Beersheba (the most southerly point), went into the desert and laid down saying I may as well die, “I’ve had enough Lord.” – just like the prophets before me, I’m no better than them in bringing the people back to God.
- Then a touch of remarkable grace, compassion and understanding. An angel touched him – gave him a good meal, freshly baked bread and water to drink.
- A beautiful 2nd touch – you have a long journey ahead. So Elijah ate again and miraculously was sustained for 40 days and nights to Horeb on Sinai, where God had originally given Moses the 10 Commandments, and went into a cave there. 40 days, of course, is significant – it represents the 40 years of the wandering of the people of Israel in the wilderness and then later 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert overcoming the enemy.
- God then spoke to him - “What are you doing Elijah?” – I’ve been zealous for your honour and now I’m the only one left and they’re trying to kill me. “Come into the presence of God” said the Lord – a powerful picture that God was not in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire (God had at Carmel answered by fire!) but in a soft, gentle whisper.
- Elijah given a new task – anoint 3 people – they will be the ones to bring judgement on the kingly line of Ahab, though Elisha did much more than that – brought blessing and the power of God to Israel for many years.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
The Reality Of Depression
- Even great bold prophets like Elijah can become depressed, even after the greatest of “mountain top” experiences (literally) and after what would have been an exhausting experience.
- Whether it is fear or disappointment both can induce depression. Anxiety and disappointment, exhaustion, or a sense of failure can also have this effect. Jezebel certainly created great fear through her anger. Never motivate by anger through fear – except the godly “fear of the Lord” i.e. respect for Him and His Word.
- Disappointment that not everything accomplished that we would hope for. Even great victories and adrenalin rushes can result in depression afterwards. Be careful at such times. We could become disappointed in the current season – will the church be stronger? Will prayers be answered? Will there be a turning in our nation to the Lord as a result of the pandemic? How will we be if our hopes are dashed and answers to our prayers deferred? Signs of depression with Elijah walking away (giving up), asking to die and believing that he is the only one left, something he says to God twice.
- God’s first answer was:
- A touch of his presence at his initiative
- A great meal
- A good sleep
- Later a new purpose in life – a recommissioning.
- I’m not saying that this is all that’s needed to heal depression but it was helpful for Elijah.
- Often spiritual depression can be not only as a result of disappointment but exhaustion and a sense of a lack of purpose.
- Firstly – God works in different ways – not just wind, fire and earthquake but actually probably more often in the quiet whisper of his presence. Are we alert to this? Do we stop activity long enough to hear God? Or do we just let exhaustion drive us on?
- Elijah had still more to do. To anoint these three others who will serve God’s purposes (at that time a judgement on the house of Ahab for leading the people away from God – leaders won’t get away with that long term). We also have a commission to bring the good news of Jesus, the grace of God to the world.
- The importance of the next generation. Anoint Elisha – all of us as we grow older should be thinking about what the next generation can do and not just what we can do. How can they be equipped?
- The tasks Elijah was given (except for the anointing of Elisha himself) was actually done by Elisha and not Elijah. For many of us our call may be fulfilled only in the next generation. E.g. my own experience in the Catalyst Festival online.
Don’t Think You’re All Alone and Don’t Do Everything Alone.
- Elijah was rebuked by God telling him that 7000 others were not following Baal; Elijah needed to find these new companies of believers. As we know from earlier in the story, Obadiah had already hid 40 other prophets. Elijah was not alone.
- Elijah, however, was a bit of a loner himself, hence the temptation to think this way. Elisha by contrast was always surrounded by people – that is God’s plan for us. Even when Elisha was anointed, he threw a party before following Elijah. Although we may have different personalities (extrovert or introvert), we still need others around us.
- Jesus said to his original 12 “Go and make disciples of all nations”. How did they work that out in practice? They planted churches – communities that followed God. True discipleship can only be worked out in community. They met in those days in large houses - e.g. 120 at the beginning of Acts in an upstairs room (my experience in Pakistan of a house church!). Refer to Martin’s preach. Make sure then we follow Hebrews 10:25, “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” (NIV). Sometimes through persecution or pandemic, we cannot meet in the same way but still need to seek out one another because being all alone can also be a factor leading to depression. The church is composed of people you would not normally mix with – old and young, rich and poor, educated and less educated, different ethnicities, people with very different interests. The glory of the gospel expressed in the church is that very different people can work together for the purposes of God – you can’t achieve that on your own or with a small group of friends.