Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18
It is no contradiction that people who have great faith can also have great personal and spiritual struggles. Elijah shows us that, and a way out of our seasons of discouragement.
The prophet Elijah’s dramatic triumph on Mt. Carmel over the worshipers of Baal had a surprising result. This great victory for God did not lead to a revival of true religion in Israel; instead, it led to a direct threat on Elijah’s life, and to the lowest point in his whole career. We read in 1 Kings 19 that:
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done . . . Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then [Elijah] was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:1-4)
I don’t suppose you have ever seen a specimen of the broom tree. It is a scraggly, bush-like growth that barely would have provided enough shade for Elijah from the burning heat of the desert sun. But I’ll bet you’ve found yourself sitting there in Elijah’s position, under the broom tree. I know I have. Each of us has struggled with discouragement at one time or another. Everyone knows what depression feels like, that big letdown that comes when things don’t turn out as you hoped they would. What do you do when you find yourself sitting under the broom tree?
The Bible has some remarkably keen insights into our personalities. After all, God made us; he understands how we work, and we can learn much about ourselves from his Word. It is especially instructive to study the lives of God’s people, because their experience is invariably our experience too. In fact, the apostle James wrote that “Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves” (James 5:17). That means he felt the same things we do. He battled the same kinds of problems. And if that’s true, maybe you and I can learn something helpful from the way Elijah responded to discouragement. We can trace the stages of his experience as we follow his movements through the story.
From Exhilaration to Depression: Israel to the Wilderness
Elijah moves spiritually from exhilaration to depression as he moves physically from Israel to Judea. First Kings 19, from which I read just a moment ago, opens just after Elijah’s triumph on Mt. Carmel. It was the highpoint of his career. For three and a half years there had been no rain in Israel as a result of God’s word and Elijah’s prayer. Then came the dramatic showdown between the prophet of God and the 450 prophets of Baal, at the climax of which Elijah prayed once more and fire came down from heaven to vindicate God’s cause. The people who were watching responded in faith, the prophets of Baal were slain, and to cap it off Elijah prayed a third time and the drought was broken. The rains came again. The biblical writer sums it up with these words: “The hand of the Lord was on Elijah” (18:46). You can imagine the sense of triumph and excitement which he must have felt.
But then he hears from Queen Jezebel. Baal may have been defeated, but she certainly wasn’t. She was determined to take her revenge upon the prophet whatever the cost. Just that quickly Elijah’s exhilaration turns to terror, and his spirits plummet. He panics, and runs for his life.
Elijah fled southward from Israel to Beersheba at the extreme southern boundary of Judah, and from there still further south out into the Judean desert. Finally, unable to go any further, he slumps down beneath that broom tree and gives in to the discouragement which has overtaken him. His life had plunged like a roller-coaster from the heights to the depths, almost overnight. There Elijah sat: hungry, exhausted, and alone. But what really got him down was his sense of failure. To see the real reason for Elijah’s discouragement, take a look at his pathetic prayer: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.”
You see what he’s saying. His mission seemed fruitless, his great victory on Mt. Carmel empty. What good did it all do? There was Jezebel still in power, while the whole nation continued in its idolatrous course. All of Elijah’s work and his life seems to have been in vain – like his faithful Israelite forefathers before him. What difference had any of them made—Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David? Like Elijah, it seemed like they had all lived for nothing, like the knowledge and the worship of God was slipping away to be lost forever.
From Depression to Complaint: the Wilderness to Mt. Horeb
Then comes the next stage of the story where Elijah moves spiritually from depression to complaint, and physically from Judea to Mt. Sinai. An angel appears to him there, sitting under the broom tree, offering Elijah food and rest, and then sending him out on a journey to Horeb, the mount of God, that is to say, Mount Sinai. And we read:
There [Elijah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)
What a fascinating conversation this is! God begins with a question for Elijah: “What are you doing here?” To which Elijah might have reasonably replied, “Well, you sent an angel who set up the whole trip. What do you mean, what am I doing here?” But of course Elijah understood what God was really asking. This question was a summons to reflection: Elijah, stop and think what has brought you here; why are you feeling as you are? Elijah’s reply is a mixture of self-pity and accusation. He very helpfully reminds the Lord of all the terrible things that have been happening in Israel, as if God might not have noticed. And he insists, “I have been zealous,” as if to say God has not.
God has allowed people to forsake the covenant, to tear down his altars, to slay his prophets. All good men are dead, Elijah says, and I’m not feeling too well myself. God has allowed people like Ahab and Jezebel to rule, and as a result, Elijah is left all alone, the only one faithful to God, and they’re seeking his life. They’re hot on his trail. What sort of a way was this for the God of Israel to act, the sovereign Lord who controls all things? Of course, Elijah’s complaint is all a distortion; he’s not the only faithful believer left, nor has God been asleep.
From Complaint to Obedience: Mt. Horeb to Israel
Now comes the climax of the story, when Elijah moves from complaint back to obedience, back to Israel, where his calling and ministry are. In one of the most famous scenes in the whole Bible, God speaks to Elijah in front of that cave on Mount Sinai.
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountain and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
The Lord God passes by Elijah in the hurricane, and in the earthquake, and in the flash and fire of the lightning, as once he had appeared to Moses on this same mountain. But the Lord didn’t speak through any of these. Elijah waited quietly until he heard the sound of a low whisper, the sound of a still, small voice. Then in reverence, he wrapped his face in his cloak and he listened as God reassured him that he wasn’t alone, that there were still 7,000 faithful people in Israel. God gave Elijah a new task of service.
What a great reminder this is for our own times of discouragement. I think what we most need when we’re feeling down is to regain a sense of perspective. After all, is God real? Does he still reign? Is he in control? Is he at the center of things and at the center of our lives? We need to listen hard for what God is saying to us in those times. It’s never a question of whether or not God will speak to us. He will. It’s only a question of whether we are still enough, quiet enough, listening hard enough so that we can hear his voice when it comes.
And what he will tell us is something like this: What matters most is obedience, not success. What matters most is how I feel about you, not how you feel about yourself. What matters most is whether I think your life is valuable and useful, not how the world thinks about you. What matters most is how I will reward you, and my reward, says God, for faithful service will be giving you more opportunities to serve. So let’s get on with it, shall we?