As brought out in the last lesson, the contrasts between 1 Kings 18 and 1 Kings 19 are sharp and startling. They are as different as night and day. In one Elijah is bold and courageous, victoriously facing all kinds of odds with the chapter concluding, “the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and outran Ahab to Jezreel.” Elijah experienced God’s supernatural strength to do the extraordinary. But in chapter 19, we find Elijah fearful, running scared, exhausted, depressed, and wanting to die.
In the section before us we see the cause of the change in Elijah. King Ahab tells the notorious Jezebel what Elijah had done. She reacts with vengeance and threatens Elijah’s life. Elijah runs for his life down to Beersheba in the desert in the southern most part of Judah. Leaving his servant, he continues another day’s journey further into the desert, crawls under a scrubby tree and, in deep depression, asks God to let him die.
Have you ever been there, in the gloom of despair and defeat when all your expectations exploded in your face? I don’t know what Elijah was expecting. With the power of God so clearly manifested perhaps Elijah thought there would be some change in Ahab, some positive response with the result there were going to be changes in the kingdom of Israel. We aren’t told. We can only guess. But something really shattered Elijah’s focus and his faith. Let’s look at the text and see what we can learn.
King Ahab had been privileged to see the mighty power of God displayed, the name of Yahweh vindicated, and the prophets of Baal severely defeated and destroyed. But for Ahab all of this was futile. The futility of these mighty acts on this callused and vile king should be a warning to all of us as well because Scripture shows the same laws of hardening which affect unbelievers, can affect believers as well. There are those going around today claiming that things like this can’t happen to believers, that our new life in Christ immunizes us. But we can be around the Word, hear it taught, and even experience the work of God in our lives and still grow lukewarm or callused (cf. Heb. 3:7f; Mark 6:52; 8:17-18; Rev. 3:15-16).
We read “Now Ahab told Jezebel all . . .” The Hebrew text has the descriptive imperfect of past continuous action from the verb nagad, “to be conspicuous, apparent,” and then, “to expound, declare, make clearly known.” Undoubtedly Ahab declared in detail the events of the day, point by point. As the media so often does today, he distorted the issues and failed to present the truth because his pride and unbelief had hardened him against the truth. As a result, he brought great trouble and pain to Elijah, to himself, and to his nation.
Note the declaration of the text. “. . . all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets . . .” How like human nature. Note again the emphasis, “all that Elijah had done.” He failed to see God in what had happened and Elijah as but God’s instrument. Like so many today he was completely absorbed with a man and as a result misrepresented the truth of what had actually happened. Motivated by his hurt pride, his anger and resentment against Elijah blinded him to the work of God and the revelation of the event.
When we proudly protect our own turf, when we get our eyes on people and what they have done or said, we fail to see God at work. When our eyes are on people, whether in admiration of a person’s life or in resentment as with Ahab, we miss the truth. Indeed, we distort the truth, we blow it all out of shape, or hide it completely. We become blind to the work of God. All we see are the conditions. When this happens, we are unable to respond with the right kind of action--with ministry, endurance, and faith.
Becoming personality-oriented nearly always leads to another consequence. In place of bold faith and love, we cause pain and misery for all concerned (cf. Heb. 12:1-15). When people focus on people, one of two things happen: (a) either they brag about the person they admire, which may bring temptation to that person and encourage others to glory in man, or (b) they attack and criticize bringing persecution and heartache. When God is not the focus, we lose.
I wonder what would have happened if Ahab had seen God in the events on Mount Carmel and then reported them as such to Jezebel. I wonder what would have happened if he had said, “I saw God, Yahweh of Israel, at work today. I saw Him prove to be the true God. He brought down fire from heaven and did that which the impotent Baal prophets could not do. He is God and the Baal prophets are false. Therefore, this house is going to follow Him.” Instead, he ignored the facts about the Lord, and called attention to the acts of Elijah--how he had mocked the Baal priests, confused them, and eventually had the people help kill them. King Ahab’s response took glory away from Yahweh, focused attention on the instrument, and fanned the flames of jealousy, revenge, and hatred. As a result, his focus precluded any chance for repentance.
Unable to hurt the Lord, Jezebel did what Satan and people always do. She attacked the instrument and gave vent to her hatred and malice. She sent a messenger with her threat. Now I ask you. If she knew where he was, why didn’t she send a platoon of soldiers to kill Elijah? Why send a messenger to warn him so he would have time to flee? This shows the sovereign overruling hand of God and how God uses the wrath of man to praise Him. Perhaps it was also because she was afraid of the people who had helped kill the Baal priests and were now on Elijah’s side. So she attacked Elijah with a threat. Also note she was still trusting in her gods that had been thoroughly exposed as impotent and futile.
How this manifests the blindness and stubbornness of the human heart. People stubbornly cling to their self-made gods be it humanism, materialism, power, or whatever. Jezebel’s actions were in keeping with her character. It’s what we would expect, but not so with Elijah. Elijah’s action is totally out of character, but it serves to remind us again of everyone’s vulnerability--that we must each take heed lest we fall. The potential of a fall is always only one step away.
The text says, “and he was afraid.” There is a slight problem here. The consonants for the Hebrew word “afraid” and those of the imperfect of “saw” are the same. Thus, the KJV and the ASV have, “and he saw.” The difference in the translation is in the vowel pointing. But nearly all other versions, NASB, RSV, NIV, Amplified, etc., have “and he was afraid.”
Some have suggested the Massoretes repointed the vowels because they did not want to attribute fear to the great prophet. A number of commentaries have followed the same line of reasoning saying this would be too out of character for Elijah. They say his flight down to Beersheba and beyond was not a flight for his life, but a trip to get alone with God since he saw conditions were not going to change. I believe this interpretation is wrong for the following reasons: (a) “Ran” is halak which means “to go, walk, proceed, move,” but it can be a synonym for running if the contexts suggest this. The words that follow it, “his life,” are what suggest the idea of running for his life. (b) The immediate context of Jezebel’s actions supports the view that Elijah was running for his life. (c) James’ statement that Elijah was a man of like nature with us undoubtedly came from Elijah’s actions in this chapter.
If “saw” is the correct translation it still does not remove the element of his fear that led to his flight out of the area. Though it would highlight several ideas: (a) our expectations, (b) our focus, (c) our strategies, and (d) the consequences, it would show how our focus (how we see a situation) can empower and encourage us, or neutralize and turn us into whimpering complainers or discouraged discontents.
Perhaps the first lesson we can learn from Elijah’s response concerns our expectations and their impact on us. As already mentioned, he was expecting something different--something more positive. He was looking for a real turnaround in the spiritual conditions of the kingdom and his expectations may have moved into the realm of a sense of demandingness.
Life is full of disappointments and if we are not extremely careful, those expectations will derail us as they become demands of our heart. It is not wrong for us to hope for the best and to look to the Lord for that. First Corinthians 13:7 says “love . . . believes all things, hopes all things.” The same is true for faith according to Heb. 11:1. But 1 Corinthians 13:7 also says, “love bears all things, . . . endures all things.” Please note, believing and hoping is sandwiched between bearing and enduring.
God holds us responsible for trusting in Him, for obedience, for love, for endurance, and for faithfulness to do what He has called us to do. He does not hold us responsible for the results. The results are in His hands, not ours. We can’t change people, and we often can’t change our circumstances, only God can. Further, our expectations can easily slip into a sense of a demandingness--demanding that things work out the way we think they should. When that happens we are usurping God’s sovereignty and acting as though we the creature were the all wise Creator (cf. Job. 40:1-9). When we focus on our expectations and make the results we want the source of our happiness, security, or significance, we end up in the Elijah syndrome--fearful, ready to run away, and engulfed in feelings of failure and depression or fear and frustration.
If “saw” is the correct reading, then this is even more emphatic. Either way, the issue of our focus remains a significant matter. Elijah knew Jezebel’s reputation and character. Now, disappointed over the turn of events and with his expectations shattered, he focused his eyes on the conditions--the wicked and irate queen, the military men at her disposal, the belief she would be persistent in her intentions, and the spineless condition of King Ahab who could not and would not control his wife.
Some principles we can glean from this negative focus and response of the prophet:
(1) We should never walk by sight--as things appear to us. We are to walk by faith in the sovereign control and providence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:7; Ps. 103:19; 115:3). Does this mean we are to be ignorant of the problems or ignore them so that we stick our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich--if they really do that? I think not! Only a weak faith seeks to ignore the problems (cf. Num. 13:1-2; Rom. 4:19).
(2) Rather, it means we are to stay focused on the Lord and seek to look beyond the problems through the eyes of faith. By faith we are to see the very real, though invisible realities about God’s person and the faithfulness of His promises and principles for life as revealed in Scripture (Ps. 19:7-9; 93:5; Rom. 4:17-21). In Romans 4:16, Abraham is called the father of faith. With Abraham as our father of faith, we can glean four things about the kind of faith God wants us to have:
(3) Therefore, by faith, we are to continue to do the things God has called us to do like pray, trust, work, serve, go to a doctor or get counsel, etc. God forbid, however, that we should run ahead of the Lord with our escape and defense strategies through which we seek to change, manipulate or control the situation.
(4) Whenever we walk by sight, we forfeit a great deal of God’s blessing and provision. This does not mean He forsakes us. God did not forsake Elijah. Indeed, He sought him out and ministered to him. During our times of unbelief, however, we forfeit God’s best. Note the following examples: (a) Lot chose according to sight, not faith, and ended up losing everything (Gen. 13:1-13). (b) At Kadesh Barnea, the people walked by sight and forfeited the privilege of entering the land. For forty years they wandered in the wilderness (Num. 13:33 and Heb. 3:18-4:2).
(5) Finally, it is helpful to remember we cannot truly remain occupied with the Lord and our problems at the same time. Obviously we will be aware of them, but our focus needs to be on the Savior. “Looking unto Jesus . . .” in Hebrews 12:2 is the Greek aphorao from apo, “from,” and horao, “to see” followed by the preposition eis, “unto.” The basic meaning is “to look away from and unto Jesus.”
There is a song that was popular in the 1950’s with the words, “O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day, I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.” This song expresses the typical attitude of the world. This is the way we would like it, but it’s simply not the way things are in a fallen world. Wanting everything to go our way is not only unrealistic, it is self-centered. It also suggests we are seeking our security and happiness in good times rather than in the Sovereign Lord. It’s living according to sight, not faith.
By contrast, the Apostle said, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). But where did he say that? While everything was going his way? NO! He said it while he was chained daily to a Roman soldier awaiting trial, which could have meant his head. He said it while others were seeking to do him harm, even within the Christian community. Instead, Paul might have sung, “O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day, though things aren’t going my way, the Lord sits on the throne every day.”
The text tells us Elijah fled to Beersheba which is way to the south. Beersheba was a desert place, but even that was not enough. Elijah left his servant there and went another full day’s journey into the wilderness where he sought shelter, not in the Almighty, but in a scrubby bush. The juniper was a broom tree that grew from 10 to 12 feet high and provided some shelter, but not much.
Nowhere in this chapter do we find Elijah calling on the Lord or seeking His direction. The problem was not that he arose and ran, or went down to the desert to hide. It was that he did so without God’s direction and without God as his primary shelter. Let’s not forget how God had earlier directed Elijah to a lonely place (1 Kings 17:2-5), but not here.
For some things we don’t need God’s intervening direction. If we are in the way of an 18-wheeler, we move if at all possible. If we get a headache, we take medicine. Asa’s sin in 2 Chronicles 16:12 was not that he sought help from the physicians, but that he excluded God. Elijah’s situation was different. He reacted rather than responding to God. And so it can be with us. We so often react rather than respond by faith in what God is doing.
What about our expectations? Have they become demands God must meet for our happiness and security? What about our focus? Is it on the Lord, on His person, His sovereignty, wisdom, etc.? What about our strategies? Are we trying to meet our needs and wants by our own solutions according to our own timing rather than by God’s?
In the next scene, we find Elijah discouraged, depressed, hiding, and failing to minister to his people. This is what some call burnout. Elijah’s actions were not the actions of faith or fellowship, but desperation and the results demonstrate this in the verses that follow. The consequences, which we will cover next, are in stark contrast to chapters 17 and 18.
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. Just like the rest of us, he experienced the problem of depression--that mental and emotional condition marked by feelings of discouragement, worthlessness, dejection, guilt, apprehension, and failure. Life is much like a roller coaster--full of ups and downs. The tendency is for us to experience happiness, joy, significance, and security according to where we are on that mean machine. We all have to ride it, but we do not have to be dominated by it. We can learn to ride it with a great deal more spiritual, mental, and emotional stability regardless of whether we are in the valleys, on the level places, or on one of the peaks. Spiritual stability is one of the blessings of our salvation in Christ. We experience it only as we learn to keep our focus on the Lord and His purposes, and as we rest by faith in God’s person, principles, and promises (Phil. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 4:8-18; Heb. 4:1-11).
But alas, we all have feet of clay. Keeping our focus on the Lord and our minds relating to God in the midst of a fallen and evil world that says, happiness, security, significance, (i.e., your needs), are found in the details of life, is not easy. We are bombarded with a general attitude that is illustrated in slogans like “life is short, so play hard. You only go around once, so get all the gusto you can.” Even when we are not affected by that kind of thinking--and Elijah was not--it is still difficult to maintain our spiritual equilibrium or orientation to God. It is easy to get lost in the fog, the dense clouds that sometimes envelop us. We try to fly by the seat of our pants rather than by our biblical instrument panel. As a result, we get lost or we crash and burn emotionally.
In this chapter, Elijah becomes a classic illustration of a depressed person. We find in his thinking, words, and actions many classic symptoms of depression--withdrawal or escape, moodiness, apprehension or fear, self-pity, feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope or confidence, anger, irritability, painful and wrong thinking, and physical exhaustion to name some of the symptoms.
According to Doctors Minirth and Meier, the number one problem in America is depression. They say:
As psychiatrists we see more people suffering from depression than from all other emotional problems put together . . . At the present time, one American in 20 is medically diagnosed as suffering from depression . . . of course, many, many more are depressed but never receive help. According to one estimate about 20 million persons in America between the ages of eighteen and 74 are currently depressed . . . Depression occurs two times more often in females, than males, and it occurs three times more often in higher socio-economic groups. Money definitely does not buy happiness. Depression occurs most often in the fourth and fifth decades of life, but may occur during any stressful period from infancy to old age.29
These statistics are interesting and important because we live in a day and in a country where the average person has a higher level of prosperity than probably any other time in history. People have more of the details of life, more potentials for pleasure, travel, fun and games, and luxury than ever before. Yet, depression is a major problem in this country. Paul Meier says:
I have had millionaire businessmen come into my office and tell me they have big houses, yachts, condominiums in Colorado, nice children, a beautiful mistress, an unsuspecting wife, secure corporate positions--and suicidal tendencies.30
We might expect depression in this kind of person. But, as I am sure you know, and as the above statistics support, depression is just as big a problem among believers and even those in full-time ministry. The problem of burnout in the ministry among missionaries and pastors is huge. Why mention all of this in connection with Elijah? Because it stresses our vulnerability as Bible-believing Christians. Depression is a devastating, debilitating malady that affects our total person--spirit, soul, and body. And it negatively impacts us spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Note some facts about depression:
(1) It is universal. It is no respecter of persons. It touches the poor and the rich, the weak and the mighty, the educated and the uneducated. It hits everyone because, ultimately, it is not caused by circumstances, possessions, or position, but rather by the way one handles life.
(2) No profession is exempt from it. It reaches out and grabs doctors, lawyers, businessmen, cab drivers, construction workers, pastors, missionaries, nurses, secretaries, housewives, moms and dads, farmers, truck drivers, athletes, etc.
(3) Depression has nothing to do with one’s IQ. If anything, people with higher IQs are more susceptible.
(4) Age is not a defense against it. It attacks the young and old alike. Each decade of age has its own special susceptibility to depression. This is often referred to as the cycles of depression.
(5) Depression ranges from mild mood swings (which we all face) to deep psychosis.
(6) It may of course have physical causes. A lack of sleep, improper diet, vitamin deficiency, exhaustion are among the more simple causes. It may also be caused by such things as drugs, low blood sugar, glandular disorders, allergies, brain tumors, and chemical imbalances.
(7) One of the most common causes, however, is in the area of the spiritual, mental, and emotional. This can also affect the physical (Prov. 14:30; 17:22). In other words, while there are physical causes, and these should be checked out, the most common causes are spiritual. Some of these causes are:
Elijah had experienced a great victory on Mount Carmel with a long-time goal accomplished. Yahweh was proven to be the true God, the people had worshipped the Lord as the true God, and the Baal prophets had been put to death. But this was also a very vulnerable time; a time where anyone could easily let down. Elijah had expended a great deal of energy--both physical and spiritual. It was truly a mountain-top experience, but now he needed to watch for the valleys that always follow.
As soon as Jezebel heard of the victory of Elijah, she sent her threat and his expectations for revival and reformation were dashed into pieces like a china cup on a concrete floor. Being disappointed, Elijah got his eyes off the Lord, became fearful, and ran for his life down to Beersheba and then beyond into the desert. He was alone, having left his servant behind. He was tired, exhausted, and in the wilderness by himself without food and water. Of course, he was not alone because the Lord was there, but he felt totally alone, helpless, fearful, hurt, a failure, and he wasn’t thinking with the viewpoint of the Word.
In such a state, what do we do? We become apathetic and faithless. We seek escape, feel sorry for ourselves and think irrationally (biblically speaking). We lose our perspective. The situation becomes a mountain and the Lord becomes in our sight like a mole hill. We stop enjoying life, we forget our goals, lose ground, and withdraw from God and people--the very ones we need the most. With this in mind, let’s note some of the causes for Elijah’s discouragement or depression:
Psychological Reason: There is generally a natural let down after victory and the accomplishment of a goal or a large task. Sunday nights and Mondays used to be terrible for me because of the let down following the emotional high of Sunday.
Physical Reason: Have you ever noticed how quickly discouragement, irritability and depression can come when you are exhausted? Elijah was physically and emotionally drained from the whole experience of Mount Carmel, the run to Jezreel, and, added to all that, the flight into the desert. I get exhausted just thinking about it! When our bodies are tired, we can’t think and respond to pressure as well as we normally can. In Elijah’s exhausted state, he prayed, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life.” Instead, the Lord lovingly and graciously sent an angel to feed and nourish him. There is a principle here: proper rest, diet, and exercise are essential to coping with depression.
(1) Disappointment, or failing to rest his expectations on the Lord. Elijah was expecting revival and reformation, but instead he experienced rejection and a threat against his life. He failed to realize that God was at work regardless of how things appeared to him. Later in the chapter, God illustrates that to the Prophet.
(2) Anger and hurt that quickly led to self-pity. He was angry at everyone including himself and the Lord. People didn’t care. He had failed. God had let him down, and no one would stand with him in the fight. He was all alone. But when our hurts fester into anger and replace love and endurance, we quickly lose our perspective and begin to imagine things that only reinforce our bad feelings and increase our depression.
(3) Wrong thinking about himself. This is seen as we examine 19:4, 10, and 14. There was the thinking that he was indispensable and poor God, He was left alone with just Elijah. So, suddenly, all became hopeless. Note three things: (a) He became occupied with his own importance, as seen in his words, “I am very zealous for the Lord, . . . for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant . . .” This was basically true, but focusing on this caused him to forget or ignore some other important principles of the Word. (b) He began to think of himself and his ministry as indispensable to the Lord’s cause. We see this in his words, “the son’s of Israel have forsaken . . . and I alone am left,” i.e., there is no one else to maintain your cause, God. He was ignoring God’s independent sovereignty and the doctrine of the remnant. God always has a remnant (Isa. 1:9). Though the Lord uses individuals as his instruments, He is dependent on no one. (c) Finally, he saw himself as an absolute failure, as worthless, as no better than his fathers who had allowed the nation to fall into this condition. In other words, he was seeking his significance, his value on his life, from his success in terms of outward results.
All of this “stinking thinking” blinded him to the Lord and the principles of Scripture. He lost sight of these principles: (a) Though we are soldiers in God’s army, the battle is the Lord’s (1 Sam. 17:14). (b) While we are fellow workers with the Lord with one sowing and another watering, the Lord alone gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:5-9), and He does so in different degrees (Matt. 13:24), and according to His timing (Eccl. 3:1; Gal. 6:9). (c) The Lord prospers His Word as He sees fit, and sometimes it becomes the basis of His judgment rather than blessing (Isa. 55:11; 6:9-11).
One of the great causes of discouragement is the lack of apparent progress, yet progress is not always obvious especially in spiritual matters, at least not to us.
The Chinese bamboo tree does absolutely nothing--or so it seems--for the first four years. Then suddenly, sometime during the fifth year, it shoots up ninety feet in sixty days. Would you say the bamboo tree grows in six weeks or in five years? Well, our lives and ministry are often like the bamboo tree. Sometimes we put forth effort, put forth effort, and put forth effort . . . and nothing seems to happen. But if you do the right things long enough, you’ll receive the rewards of your efforts.32
Compare 1 Corinthians 15:58 and Galatians 6:9, “And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.” We are all to find our significance, our value in the Lord and His grace. We need to know we are complete in Christ and have been given gifts of grace to serve Him (Col. 2:10; Rom. 12:3f).
Elijah, of course, was not alone. The Lord was there and even sent His angel to minister to him. Not only is the Lord omnipresent, but how comforting to know He has promised to never leave nor forsake believers no matter what we face (Ps. 139; Heb. 13:5-6). He was also not alone from the human standpoint. God had 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal.
Note how the Lord handles Elijah’s depression:
(1) Before He dealt with Elijah’s spiritual condition, He rejuvenated Elijah physically with rest and nourishment.
(2) He then got Elijah to face his true condition, the real problem. Taking the position of a counselor, the Lord twice asked Elijah “why are you here?” In other words, take stock, think about what you have been doing (vss. 9 and 13).
(3) God spoke to him personally in verses 9, 12, 13, and 15. This illustrates the need to be in the Word where we listen to the Lord (hear His still small voice), focus on Him, and apply truth. We will study this in more detail later.
(4) He got Elijah active and involved in ministry again. Note the “Go, return on your way . . .” in verse 15. When feeling down, depressed, apart from getting needed rest, do not give in to the temptation to mope about and do nothing. Doing nothing only reinforces the depression. By the same token, never use activity to narcotize the pain. Give it to the Lord. Rest, relaxation, and solitude with the Lord needs the balance of involvement in work and ministry, but always out of a spirit of faith, never just activity.
(5) God provided Elijah with a companion. He commanded him to find Elisha. Elijah was trying to do too much himself. He had to learn to share the work load and burden with others. Eventually, others must be able to share our load and even take our place.
Depression, as we have been discussing it here, is not something we catch like a virus, something that is unavoidable. We bring it on ourselves by wrong thinking and wrong choices, and for some reason we unconsciously choose to get depressed. It is a choice we do not want to make, but we make it anyway. Why do we choose it? Because it is one of our strategies for coping with our disappointments. Depression is simply a man-made and temporary solution to our pain. The world offers many solutions for relief, but they are not only temporary and shallow, but they invariably lead us away from God’s solutions. This makes them part of Satan’s program of deception. People want to feel better and to be comfortable. Some of our ways of coping may be legitimate, but if they do not ultimately lead us to find and know God’s sufficiency, they become a part of the problem rather than the solution. As Proverbs teaches us, “there is a way that seems right unto man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).
We must count the costs of depression. Depression costs us tremendously in terms of our productivity, our effectiveness, and our happiness physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Depression affects us in every sphere--at home, on the job, in the community, and in our church and in the Lord’s work.
This lesson has dealt more with the subject of depression. In the next lesson, we will look in more detail at verses 5-19.