James, the brother of Jesus, writes something about Elijah that encourages us and helps us to relate to him when he says, “Elijah was a human as we are.” Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that Elijah is such a beloved character to me, at least…this, and his sarcasm with the prophets of Baal. :-) We all have a tendency to want to idealize the great men and women of the Bible, but the Scriptures tell us the truth about them…the good, the bad and the ugly. The outstanding leaders of the Bible, with all of their “humanness” knew how to find their way out of the wilderness and get back on track with the Lord. We can learn from their defeats as well as their successes.
Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that the death of a beloved public figure this past week has been so disturbing for many of us who “grew up with him.” Robin Williams was an immensely talented individual…funny, as well as gifted in more serious roles. As we know, he took his own life, as the result from being in despair and depression because of addiction, personal struggle. It is tragically sad that he could not find his way out of the darkness that had enveloped him. Despair and depression are very real difficulties that we humans face. I have read that as many as 1 in 3 people deal with it in some form. I know that I have had moments of despair in my own life, and struggled through depression one time when I was 20. We have to know that there are some medical measures that can help to deal with some of these difficulties, because often times, there are chemical issues that need to be set in order in the human body. But, there are also times when despair and depression are the result of spiritual struggles…sin invades our lives and causes us to lose our way, and as with Elijah, we need to lean on the Lord in order to help us find victory over our struggle. And this brings me to the story today. We can better learn how to lean on the Lord when we are in a low place in our lives.
When the torrential rains begin to fall, Queen Jezebel is in Jezreel, and may have thought that Baal the storm god has triumphed (1 Kings 19:1-8). However, when Ahab (pity the fool) arrives home, he has to tell a much different story. Ahab is a weak man, and he has to live with Jezebel…and without her support, he knows that he is nothing. If ever there was a strong-willed ruler with a penchant for evil, it is Jezebel. And neither she nor Ahab accept the clear evidence shown on Mt. Carmel that Yahweh is one true and living God. So, instead of calling the nation back to repentance to serve the Lord, she declares war on Yahweh and his faithful servant Elijah. (And…“no surprise here,” Ahab offer no resistance to her). She sends a hateful message to Elijah. She could just has him killed, but at this point, he is a popular man. If she does so, he becomes a martyr, and therefore might influence more people in his death than in his life.
The people are waiting for Elijah to tell them what to do…so let’s just do the (not so) sensible thing and remove ourselves from the scene of our victory, right? Does this make any sense? No. As the ancient church fathers would say – “Beware of human reactions after holy exertions”…so Elijah, experiencing the fear of man, flees from Jezreel. In a moment of fear, he forgets every providential thing the Lord has done for him for the past three years, and he becomes “a man on the run”…running on ahead of the Lord in order to save his own life. He takes his servant, leaves Israel, and heads for Beersheba, the southernmost city in Judah. Remember what happened when Abraham fled to Egypt, and when Jonah was fleeing away from Nineveh? It doesn’t ever work out well to run away from God’s will.
When Elijah arrives at his destination, he sits down under a juniper tree and does a wise thing – he prays. But, he does not pray a wise prayer. “I’ve had enough,” he tells the Lord, “take my life. I am not any better than my fathers.” The irony is that God never asks him to better than anyone else…but, just to be obedient to His message. The combination of burnout, weariness, hunger, a deep sense of failure, and a lack of faith in the Lord bring Elijah into a depression. There is also an element of pride, not to mention self-pity, involved, because he was certain that his victory on Mount Carmel would bring the nation to its knees before the Lord. When the heart is heavy and we are weary, one of the best things we can do is get some rest. While Elijah is asleep, the Lord sends an angel to take care of his needs. God’s timing is impeccable, as usual. The angel prepares a simple, but adequate meal for Elijah, who wakes up, eats and then goes back to sleep. He sleeps for some undetermined amount of time again, and then awakes again to the angel encouraging him to eat, because he has a long journey ahead of him, to Mount Sinai (Horeb). No matter what the destination, the journey is never going to work out well if we do not have God’s help to strengthen us for that journey. Words to remember.
Tim Smith shares concerning an important subject that James Bryan Smith covers in his writing, "The number one enemy of spiritual formation today is exhaustion. We are living beyond our means ... physically. And as a result, one of the primary activities of human life is being neglected: sleep." In the 1850's, the average American slept 9.5 hours. By 1950, that had dropped to 8 hours and today the average American gets only 7 hours of sleep a night. James Bryan Smith continues, "Neglecting our bodies ... impedes our spiritual growth ... If our bodies are not sufficiently rested, our energies will be diminished and our ability to pray, read the Bible, enter solitude or memorize Scripture will be diminished."
Elijah was physically exhausted and no longer had an appetite. He was depressed about himself and his work, and was being controlled more and more by self-pity…a dangerous place to be. Instead of turning to others for help, and more importantly, the Lord, he isolated himself, saying “I only am left,” and worst of all, he feels like he wants to die. (And this is something of an irony, as Elijah is one of only two people in the Word of God who did not die, but he…as well as Enoch…was taken up to be with the Lord). Nonetheless, the prophet felt like he had failed his mission, and decided that it is time to quit. The Lord did not see it that way.
We can find ourselves in this position rather easily as well…in our culture, we go and go and go some more, and then we wonder why we get to a point where we are not being very productive with anything. Too much work, stress and the like can lead to burnout and depression. One of the best things that we can do for ourselves…as Elijah did…is get some needed rest. We really need to humble ourselves before the Lord and get ready for the trials that can often follow the victories in our lives. It is awfully easy to move from the mountaintop of triumph to the valley of testing. We certainly see this, even with Jesus, as He goes from His baptism into the wilderness of trial. (Matthew 3-4) The good news is that Lord can look beyond our changing moods and impetuous prayers, because He has sympathy and compassion for us. This chapter shows just how tenderly God deals with us, His people, when we are in the depths of despair and feel like giving up. And this is so important for us, as we are on our journey in this life, preparing ourselves (hopefully) for the next life.