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21. When Leaders Get Depressed (Numbers 11:1-34)

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Life of Moses (21)

July 15, 2018

You might think that godly Christian leaders never get depressed. Perhaps they shouldn’t get depressed, but the truth is, many strong Christian leaders have struggled with depression.

It is well known that the famous 19th century British preacher, C. H. Spurgeon, suffered from terrible bouts with depression. He had several serious health issues that could have triggered his depression, but whatever the causes, he often was brought extremely low. Once, he told his congregation that he felt so down that he could say with Job, “My soul chooseth strangling rather than life.” He added (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 36:200), “I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself, to escape from my misery of spirit.” He was suicidal!

Spurgeon wasn’t alone. Martin Luther sometimes struggled with deep depression. Several great preachers from the past—John Henry Jowett, Alexander Whyte, and G. Campbell Morgan—wrestled with depression in their ministries (Kent Hughes, Moody Bible Institute Founder’s Week Messages, 1984, p. 89).

In Numbers 10, Moses seemed optimistic about the future, but in Numbers 11 he was so depressed that he asked God to take his life. In Numbers 10:29, he appealed to his brother-in-law, Hobab, to come with Israel as they journeyed to the Promised Land, assuring him (Num. 10:29), “The Lord has promised good concerning Israel.” The future looked bright. But by Numbers 11:15, he was so down that he prayed, “So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.”

What happened? And what can leaders and all of God’s people learn from Moses’ bout with depression?

A leader can get depressed if he lets complaining people get to him; he tries to do everything by himself; or he forgets God’s promises and power to accomplish His purposes.

Before we look at why Moses got depressed, note that many other godly leaders in the Bible have been depressed. As Spurgeon mentioned, in Job’s intense suffering he wished that he could die. The author of Psalms 42 & 43 was fighting depression because he felt abandoned by God and oppressed by enemies. Jeremiah, whose message was pretty much rejected, wished that he had never been born (Jer. 15:10; 20:14-18). When God spared the people of Ninevah, Jonah, who wanted God to judge them, asked God to kill him (Jon. 4:3). John the Baptist got depressed in prison and wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah (Matt. 11:1-6). Peter wept bitterly over his failure when he denied the Lord (Matt. 26:75). And, Paul was depressed because of the attacks against him from some in the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 7:6).

Even the mighty prophet Elijah, who had seen God do many mighty miracles and had just seen a great victory over the prophets of Baal, asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). The ironic thing was that he was fleeing from the wicked Queen Jezebel, who had threatened to take his life! If he really wanted to die, she could have done the job! But depressed people don’t always think logically!

Moses’ experience here is not comprehensive, but we can see three reasons leaders may get depressed:

1. A leader can get depressed if he lets complaining people get to him.

The tabernacle was constructed after the people had given so much that Moses had to ask them to stop giving (Exod. 36:5-6)! That must have been a unique and wonderful problem! After the tabernacle was completed, God’s glory was seen as the cloud descended on it. After that, the cloud led Israel through the wilderness, reminding them of God’s presence with them (Num. 9:15-23). In the second year after they came out of Egypt, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted and Israel set out towards the Promised Land (Num. 10:11-12). They were on their way. Things were looking hopeful!

But then the grumbling that had characterized Israel when they first came out of Egypt started up again (Num. 11:1): “Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.” We learn …

A. Sometimes people complain because they don’t like God’s ways, which include adversity.

God’s way to the Promised Land was through the barren wilderness. And His way to heaven is always through trials. As Paul told his new converts (Acts 14:22), “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” The Lord uses various trials to teach us to trust Him and to shape us into the image of Jesus, who learned obedience from the things which He suffered (Heb. 5:8).

The people’s complaining was “in the hearing of the Lord.” All complaining is in the hearing of the Lord! In Exodus 14-16 when the people complained, God graciously met their need. But now they have experienced a year of His gracious protection and guidance through the cloud, and His provision of manna and water in the desert. So now when they complained, the Lord was angry and sent fire around the outskirts of the camp. We aren’t told whether any people perished or if there was just property damage. But Moses prayed and the fire died out.

If we think that God’s plan is to give us health and material comforts and to protect us from all trials, then we’ll be prone to complain when we face adversity. To give thanks and not complain when we face adversity, we need to remember that God’s purpose is to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ, not to make us comfortable and protect us from trials.

B. Sometimes people complain because they are greedy and expect leaders to meet all their desires.

Numbers 11:4-6: “The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.’”

“The rabble” probably refers to the non-Israelites who joined Israel when they left Egypt. They were not the majority, but when complainers gripe about conditions or leaders that they’re not happy with, it can spread like wildfire among the whole congregation. Pretty soon all of the sons of Israel were weeping about the “boring” manna and fondly reminiscing about how good they had it back in Egypt. This was amazing—they were slaves in Egypt, treated harshly by their masters, but they could only remember the variety of food that they used to eat for “free”! Well, sort of! They may have eaten free, but they weren’t free! They were slaves, forced to make bricks in the hot Egyptian sun every day. But now the greedy rabble stirred up everyone to complain.

One cause of greed and complaining is that you compare yourself with others whom you think are better off than you are. In the barren wilderness, the rabble thought about the Egyptians eating cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But they forgot that the Egyptians had all lost their firstborn in the final plague. They were complaining because Moses wasn’t giving them all the tasty food that they enjoyed in Egypt. But they forgot that in Egypt they were under the cruel dictatorship of Pharaoh, who didn’t care about their welfare as Moses did. And so they complained. At the root of their complaint was an even deeper cause:

C. Sometimes people complain because they have rejected the Lord.

God, who knows every heart, told Moses that the people had rejected Him, the Lord who had led them out of slavery and had protected and provided for them for the past year in the wilderness (Num. 11:20). Their problem wasn’t boredom with manna, but rejecting the gracious Lord who had redeemed them and met all of their needs. They had His presence in the wilderness and His promises to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, but they preferred returning to slavery in Egypt!

This would be comparable to a Christian saying, “Life was better when I was a non-Christian. I wish that God hadn’t saved me! I’d rather be back in the world, enjoying everything I had back then!” (See Ronald Allen, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:793.) So the people were completely self-centered and not thankful for God’s abundant provisions and His promise for a glorious future in the Promised Land. Their continued complaining would soon result in their being excluded from entering the land.

D. When leaders listen to people complain and make impossible demands, it can lead to depression.

The people were weeping and saying, “Who will give us meat to eat?” And Moses heard them weeping (vv. 4, 10). The first time the people complained, Moses did the right thing: he prayed for them and God graciously stopped the fire. But this time, he let it get to him. He was right to pray again, but this time his prayer was a complaint to the Lord about the complainers (Num. 11:11-15):

So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.”

Moses got depressed because he listened to difficult people complaining about problems that Moses could not fix. Where in the barren wilderness can you get enough meat to feed two million people? If you let complaining people get to you because they’re making impossible demands, you’re headed for depression.

There is a lesson here for leaders and those thinking about taking a leadership position: When there are problems in a group, the leader often is the focus of criticism. So before you sign up for the job, count the cost! If God is calling you to be a leader, you won’t be able to make everyone happy! You will catch flak. Even a great leader like Moses had to deal with difficult, complaining, self-centered people. But be careful, because complaining people can wear you down and get you depressed.

There is also a lesson for God’s people: Before you complain about problems in the church, examine your heart before the Lord. Are you seeking first your comfort and happiness or God’s kingdom and righteousness? Are you expecting your leaders to do what only God can do? Maybe your complaint is a valid problem that you and the leaders can resolve as you prayerfully work together in the Lord. Or, it may be a situation that everyone has to live with for the present. Wilderness camping was not the Promised Land! The people needed to adjust to the reality of the journey.

So, a leader can get depressed if he lets complaining people get to him. But there’s a second reason a leader can get depressed:

2. A leader can get depressed if he tries to do everything by himself.

God graciously did not rebuke Moses for his accusation that the Lord had loaded him with more than he could handle. Instead, the Lord instructed Moses to gather seventy men from the elders of Israel. He promised to take of the Spirit on Moses and put Him on them, so that they could bear the burden of the people with Moses (Num. 11:16-17). The idea was not that Moses would have less of the Spirit than he presently had, but rather that the same Spirit that was on Moses would now rest on these men, who would help him lead the people.

When the Spirit rested on these men, they prophesied once, but didn’t do it again (Num. 11:25). Their prophesying was a temporary gift to establish their credentials before the people. Their main task would not be to speak God’s word to the people, as Moses did, but rather to help Moses meet the needs of this huge group (Allen, ibid., 2:794).

Two men (probably two of the seventy) did not go out to Moses at the tent of meeting where the others prophesied. Rather, they prophesied in the camp (v. 26). A young man came and reported this and Joshua, who was jealous for Moses’ leadership, entreated him to restrain these men. But Moses replied (Num. 11:29), “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” Moses wasn’t after glory for himself. He wanted the Lord’s work to get done, whether through him or others. Moses’ attitude was the same as that of the Lord Jesus (Mark 9:38-40):

John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.”

The apostle Paul reflected the same spirit when he told the Philippians (1:15-17) that some in Rome were preaching Christ out of envy and selfish ambition, trying to cause Paul distress in his imprisonment. He concluded (Phil. 1:18), “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.” Paul’s aim was to see the gospel preached, not to get glory for himself. F. B. Meyer (Moses [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 155) wrote, “There is no test more searching than this. Am I as eager for God’s kingdom to come through others as through myself?”

Moses’ attitude here also anticipated the prophet Joel (2:28),

“It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.”

That prophecy was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church (see, also, Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-27). Now, every believer in Christ possesses the Holy Spirit and is given a spiritual gift to use in serving Him (Rom. 8:9; 12: 1 Cor. 12:7, 13). The church is strong in proportion to how many of its members are using their spiritual gifts to serve the Lord. Pastors who try to do everything by themselves are headed for burnout and depression.

Thus a leader can get depressed if he lets complaining people get to him and if he tries to do everything by himself. Finally,

3. A leader can get depressed if he forgets God’s promises and power to accomplish His purposes.

A. A leader can get depressed if he forgets God’s promises to accomplish His purposes.

In Exodus 33, the Lord responded to the incident with the golden calf by telling Moses that He would send His angel with Israel to take them into the Promised Land, but He Himself would not go with them, lest he destroy them because of their disobedience. But Moses told the Lord, in effect, “If You don’t go with us, we’re not going. It would be better to stay here in this barren desert with You than to go to the Promised Land without You.” The Lord responded by promising to go with them. The fulfillment of that promise was seen in the cloud, which Moses could still see (Num. 10:34). It was a visible sign of God’s favor. But now, because of the people’s complaining, Moses asks the Lord (Num. 11:11), “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me?” He had forgotten God’s promise to bring the people into the Promised Land.

Speaking as a pastor, it can be very discouraging when people complain about some problem in the church and leave the church because you haven’t fixed it. Often they don’t even tell you about the problem; they just leave. At such times, I have to claim Christ’s promise (Matt. 16:18), “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Or, if you aren’t a leader, but something happens in your life that is discouraging or depressing, remember the Lord’s wonderful promise (Rom. 8:31-32), “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”

B. A leader can get depressed if he forgets God’s power to accomplish His purposes.

Moses thought that maybe the Lord had forgotten how many people were out there in the wilderness. So he reminded Him (Num. 11:21) and then asked rhetorically (v. 22) whether Israel should slaughter off all their livestock or catch all the fish in the sea to feed them. The Lord replied by reminding Moses of His power (Num. 11:23): “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.” The Lord then sent quail in such abundance that the ones who gathered the least gathered ten homers (about 500-800 gallons!). The Lord never lacks resources to meet our needs!

But the people were greedy and God judged them for it, striking them with a plague, so that many died (Num. 11:33-34). John Currid (Numbers [EP Books], p. 172) points out that they were craving for Egypt, so God gave them a taste of what Egypt experienced—plagues. They did not acknowledge God as the provider of the meat or give thanks, so He gave them over to their own lusts (see Rom. 1:21-32). Those who sow to the flesh from the flesh reap corruption (Gal. 6:8).

Moses’ asking the Lord where he can get enough meat to feed this huge group in the desert reminds me of Jesus and the disciples when they were in a remote place with 5,000 men, plus women and children. Jesus asked Philip (John 6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” Like Moses trying to figure out where to get enough meat, Philip did the math and figured that 200 denarii (which they didn’t have) wouldn’t be enough. Jesus proceeded to multiply the meagre five loaves and two fish to feed that hungry crowd, with twelve baskets full left over.

The late Chinese evangelist, Watchman Nee, has a wonderful sermon on the feeding of the 5,000, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Bookroom], 2:48), where he makes the point, “Everything in our service for the Lord is dependent on His blessing…. The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.” I first read that sermon years before I became a pastor, and its message has sustained me over the years as I have constantly felt inadequate for this ministry. I would have been overwhelmed with depression years ago if I didn’t keep in mind that the Lord doesn’t work by my might or power, but by His Spirit (Zech. 4:6).


Whether you’re a leader or not, don’t listen to complainers. People complained about Moses’ leadership and about God’s plan to take them to the Promised Land, in spite of His abundant provisions. No matter how faithfully you serve the Lord, someone is sure to complain. If the complaint is valid, then try to deal with it. But if not, then keep serving by the Lord’s strength. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Ask God to raise up others who will serve Him in the Spirit. And, don’t forget His promises and His power. Moses was an imperfect mediator, but we have a perfect high priest who will give grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:14-16).

Application Questions

  1. How can you know whether a complaint is valid or not? What guidelines apply?
  2. The psalmists often pour out their complaints to the Lord. Is this okay? When does it cross the line into sinful complaining?
  3. Is depression sinful: always, sometimes, or never? How can you know the difference?
  4. We all know that God is able to supply our needs. But how can we know whether it’s His will to do so in a specific instance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

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