God’s Grace for a Depressed Servant
God’s Grace for a Depressed Servant
1 Kings 19:1-21
Main Idea: Following the events at Mount Carmel, Elijah gets extremely discouraged, but God graciously renews His servant.
I. Elijah’s Spiritual Depression (19:1-4)
A. The course
B. The causes
II. God’s Gracious Response (19:5-21)
A. Bread in the wilderness (vv. 5-8)
B. A voice on the mountain (vv. 9-13a)
C. A vision for the future (vv. 13b-21)
I’m going to Disney World!” Phil Simms, the quarterback of the Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, first uttered this advertising phrase in 1987. Other famous athletes (and some winners of nonsporting events) have appeared on commercials echoing Simms. The phrase is so popular that you can hear Little League coaches jokingly say after a win, “We’re going to Disney World!” Champions normally celebrate but normally not at Disney World, which makes this expression funny and memorable. We’re used to seeing champagne poured on heads in the locker room, parades in the city, and much more.
Elijah just won the “Super Bowl” at Carmel. He would make a great candidate for a Disney World commercial! But we don’t see him going to Disney World, having a parade, or riding off into the sunset in triumph.
Chapter 19 doesn’t begin the way we expect at all. We expect to see Israel turning their hearts back to God (18:37). After all, in response to God’s burning up the soggy altar, they fell on their faces and confessed, “Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God!” (18:39). But do we see national revival? Nope. We hope to find wicked King Ahab returning to the palace to remove Jezebel for her idolatrous influence in the land. After all, we left him in chapter 18 obeying Elijah’s word (vv. 42,45). But is that what Ahab does? No, he doesn’t. His repentance was false, and his spine was like a jellyfish. He runs back and tattles on Elijah to the Baal-promoting Phoenician queen. We wonder if Jezebel will surrender her false theology and repent. Instead, she seeks to put Elijah to death. We at least expect to find “Mr. My God is Yahweh” standing tall in the midst of this rebellion. After all, “the power of the Lord was on Elijah” (18:46). But is that what happens? No, it doesn’t. We find our brother Elijah depressed, throwing a pity party, running from Jezebel, and asking God to take his life.
We have read of Elijah’s mountaintop experience at Mount Carmel, but now we see Elijah down in the valley under a broom tree. He previously ministered to others but now is focused on himself. Elijah confronted Ahab and the false prophets courageously, but here we find him running like a coward from a lady. Previously, Elijah moved at God’s word, but now we see him fleeing apart from God’s word. In the previous chapters we see him praying for rain and fire, but now we find him praying for God to take his life.
Elijah’s faith and prayer life have challenged us, but now Elijah’s spiritual collapse serves as a warning and provides wise counsel.
Elijah was a man like us (Jas 5:17), which means he experienced the same temptations and struggles we face, including spiritual discouragement and despair. I have struggled with what to call his condition here. Alistair Begg’s exposition is called “Down in the Valley,” Charles Spurgeon titled his exposition “Faintness and Refreshing,” Sinclair Ferguson’s exposition is titled “Experiencing Spiritual Depression,” and Steve Brown also called this condition “Spiritual Depression” (each sermon found online). Paul House calls Elijah a “prophet drained of strength” in a “pit of fear and depression” (1, 2 Kings, 224). Faucett and Brown call this “an extraordinary depression of mind” (Commentary Critical and Explanatory, Logos Software). Provan says Elijah is a man who “has had enough” (1 and 2 Kings, 144). Hughes and Laney call it “discouragement and deep despair” (Tyndale, 136). Phil Ryken says Elijah “has descended into the blackness of spiritual despair” (1 Kings, 516). Bimson says, “In the depths of depression and despair, he prayed that he might die” (“1 and 2 Kings,” 360). “Spiritual depression” seems to be a good description of Elijah’s condition.
My hero, Spurgeon, knew of spiritual depression. In his classic book, Lectures to My Students, he has a chapter titled “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” in which he addresses this matter:
Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong aren’t always so vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy. I know by most painful experience what deep depression in spirit means. (Lectures, 154)
Others in church history have suffered periods of discouragement and despair. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Martin Luther, William Cowper, Mother Theresa, Henry Nouwen, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others experienced what some call “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
After Hurricane Katrina, I myself suffered, trying to deal with my despair with four scoops of Moose Tracks ice cream every night! Of course, many pastors feel despair every Monday! That’s why many counsel pastors to mow their yard or steam clean their carpet on Monday, for at least they will have some sense of accomplishment after feeling like a failure from the previous day.
I heard Mark Driscoll use the phrase “Bread Truck Mondays” to describe the Monday blues. He reported that sometimes he dreams on Mondays about what he could do other than pastor, like driving a bread truck. He said he imagines the bliss of only being responsible for bread, not people. Bread doesn’t commit adultery, lie, have unpredictable giving patterns, or gossip. Driscoll liked the idea of driving around listening to sports talk radio instead of enduring the mental strain that goes along with pastoring. I’ve never forgotten that illustration because I have had my own Bread Truck Mondays.
So we can understand a person’s struggle in this area. We shouldn’t be surprised by spiritual depression, but we shouldn’t want to remain there either. Why? Lloyd-Jones says, “It is very sad that anyone should remain in such a condition . . . and such people are very poor representatives of the Christian faith” (Spiritual Depression, 23). Yes! We need to learn from Elijah’s struggle so we may avoid it or at least not become mired in it. And we need to consider this subject so that we may present the gospel in a way that is compelling and makes Jesus look glorious. It’s hard to communicate this way when we are downcast. It’s like we are saying, “My life stinks. Do you want to be a Christian too?” We believe that a fruit of the Spirit is joy! When you read Acts, you find a happy group of witnesses. Their joy was attractive and contagious.
Before moving on, let me qualify the matter. I don’t mean that we should go around smiling all the time. There are many psalms of lament in the Bible. Not all brokenness is negative; indeed, it’s often appropriate. We should grieve over our lost neighbors, injustice, poverty, and other effects of this fallen world. Further, sometimes being down is a natural, physical experience. Spurgeon said,
Certain bodily maladies, especially those with the digestive organs, the liver, and the spleen, are the fruitful fountains of despondency. . . . As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? (Lectures, 155)
Indeed we are! Sometimes the reason many pastors are down on Monday is simply a matter of adrenaline depletion. You only have so much, and you must rest and be restored. You cannot keep stretching the rubber band, using adrenaline when you don’t need it, never taking a break. Eventually the rubber band will break. You will inevitably pay for not resting.
However, sometimes we’re down for no good reason, and we must look away from ourselves to the finished work of Jesus in order to be free from this downcast demeanor and to commend the gospel to others. Derek Thomas puts it this way:
There are various kinds of depression, to be sure, and some are the result of complex physical and psychological disorders. But there are times when we are spiritually depressed for no good reason. There are times when the best thing to do with our feelings is to challenge them: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God” (Ps 42:11). (“A Light in Dark Places”)
This passage reveals some of the causes of Elijah’s spiritual depression and how God tenderly responded to him. My goal isn’t to address all of the complicated matters related to depression but instead to attempt to talk about the spiritual dynamics associated with it (recognizing that we are complex creatures, with the physical and spiritual always affecting each other). Olley summarizes the overarching application well:
Depression has been known for years; “burn-out” is a recently named phenomenon. The narrative is brief, but it provides encouragement to people experiencing such, and is an example of God’s compassionate, understanding response. Throughout, Yahweh meets Elijah’s depression and resignation with gentle and patient understanding and quiet revelation, and an expression of trust in giving a task that is new. (Message, 181)
Let us find encouragement from this chapter by considering it under two headings: Elijah’s spiritual depression and God’s restoring grace.
Elijah’s Spiritual Depression
1 Kings 19:1-4
Before we note the causes of Elijah’s despair, consider its course, that is, what actually happened in the story. We can trace the course in five sections.
Elijah lost perspective. He lost sight of the fact that a short-term victory doesn’t mean the war is over. He had been triumphant at Carmel, but he would be engaged in a battle until his life was over. He had a relentless foe in Jezebel. She was not just a lady with an attitude. She had tremendous resources at her disposal, and she was angry at the defeat. When this Baal-promoting queen saw the rain, she was probably ready to attribute that to her “storm god.” However, Ahab comes back to relay the news and tells her that not only did Yahweh send the rain but also Elijah slew Baal’s prophets (17:1). A poor loser can be vicious. Jezebel is determined to take out Elijah.
For the believer the battle never ends. Yesterday’s victory doesn’t ensure today’s success. Every day we must rely on God’s power to overcome our challenges. Without God’s strength Elijah was a weak man. In the words of Jesus, “You can do nothing without Me” (John 15:5). We must take the long view on the Christian life. Until you see Jesus, you are engaged in a war.
Elijah lost his commitment to follow God’s word. Elijah didn’t allow God’s word to direct his path. After Jezebel’s threat, “Elijah became afraid and immediately ran for his life. When he came to Beer-sheba that belonged to Judah, he left his servant there” (v. 3). In chapters 17–18, “the word of the Lord came to Elijah,” and “he went” (17:2,5,8,10; 18:1-2). But now there is no word from the Lord, and Elijah seemingly departs on his own. The “word of the Lord” doesn’t appear again until verse 9. Elijah seems to put God’s word behind his back and lives as his own master. He has lost his spiritual bearings and drifted from his routine of depending on God’s word to determine his steps. He is AWOL.
We will face the same temptation. Will we order our lives by God’s authority, or will we do what we want, when we want, how we want? When we get away from the simple discipline of regularly reading and applying God’s Word, we will drift into ungodliness and spiritual darkness. If you aren’t in God’s Word, the question isn’t whether you will drift away from God’s will, but when, and how far will you wander?
Elijah lost his vision of the greatness of God. Elijah “became afraid” (v. 3). The word can be translated “saw.” He saw and ran for his life. How could the mighty Elijah be afraid? He was gripped by fear because he took his eyes off the greatness of God. We previously read of how Elijah stood before Ahab declaring, “As the Lord God of Israel lives” (17:1). But here he drops his elevated concept of God and panics.
Some argue that he didn’t leave out of fear of his own life but as a purposeful withdrawal as a judgment on Israel and as an intentional journey to the mountain where Yahweh first made the covenant with Israel. I find this hard to believe. I see a more human, frail picture of Elijah running for his life. House says, “For whatever reason—fatigue, lack of faith, or a sense of resignation at the prospect of never having peace—Elijah flees” (1, 2 Kings, 222). I think all three conditions probably contributed to Elijah’s flight, but the purpose was not to allow judgment to fall on Israel. His fleeing in chapter 17 appears to be a different experience from that here in chapter 19. The first was positive, but this one is negative. I agree with Provan who writes that Elijah runs “as far away from Jezebel as he can get.” He adds, “The journey south was certainly not on God’s agenda” (1 and 2 Kings, 144).
We must maintain a high view of God as we journey through the challenges of this life. Even the best of saints, like Elijah, can lose sight of who He is and what He can do.
He lost his fight. This results from his losing perspective, bearings, and vision. He fled. But notice where he flees. He goes all the way to Beer-sheba! As you read through the Old Testament, you will see the phrase “from Dan to Beer-sheba” representing the northern and southern extremities of the promised land. Elijah heads to the deep South, abandons his servant, and then goes “a day’s journey into the wilderness” (v. 4). When faced with the question of “fight or flight,” Elijah had previously responded to conflict with “fight.” But now he runs away.
While we may not have a lady named Jezebel who wants to kill us, we’re engaged in a spiritual battle. We must address those issues that are threatening the kingdom of God in our lives. When we fail to tackle the most pressing spiritual issues before us, we discover that we are unable address smaller matters well. You cannot work around your challenges for long. You have to fight them.
Elijah lost his desire to live. We are stunned by the writer’s words: he “prayed that he might die. He said, ‘I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my fathers” (v. 4). Elijah was not the first person to despair of life, and he was not the last. Moses told God, “Kill me right now” (Num 11:15). Job wished that he would have never been born (Job 10:18-19). Jeremiah cursed the day of his birth (Jer 20:14). Jonah asked God to take away his life because death was better than life (Jonah 4:3). These men longed for death, but they didn’t actually take their lives. Instead, God sustained and restored them. The good news for Elijah is that God brought him out of it. We should consider it a good sign that we have this story. There was no eyewitness other than Elijah who could have reported it. God brought him through it. And interestingly, he was the one prophet who never died at all but was instead taken up into heaven (2 Kgs 2:11).
Have you ever said, “I’ve had enough, Lord”? If so, then you can identify with this struggling saint. Whether you are tempted to leave your spouse, your job, or this life, there is hope in this story. God deals with Elijah with amazing grace and patience.
But what led to this course? How did Elijah despair of life itself? Surely there are numerous factors leading to this situation. As noted, there were natural and spiritual factors, and these two aren’t unrelated. Let’s consider them in four categories. Some are plainer in the text than the others.
Elijah was drained. This is clear. Physically, he had been a man on the run for three years, living by God’s miraculous provision of bread. When he sent Ahab to Carmel to eat and drink (18:41-42), Elijah went to pray. Then he ran 17 miles ahead of Ahab to Jezreel. But he wasn’t done running. The distance from the top of Mount Carmel to Beer-sheba is about 120 miles. It would take a traveler about six days unless he ran part of the way. Then we read that he went another day into the wilderness. Later he would travel all the way to Mount Horeb (v. 8). That all adds up to about 300 miles! When we’re physically tired, we’re spiritually vulnerable as well.
Emotionally, he was also drained. He presumably had a letdown after his victory at Carmel. We can relate to this. We are vulnerable after a victory. We need manna every day. We cannot live on yesterday’s victories.
Sometimes God wants to humble us with trials to teach us to depend on Him. After describing his great experiences, including being caught up into the third heaven, Paul says, “Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself” (2 Cor 12:7). Twice Paul says he was afflicted with this irrevocable thorn in the flesh (v. 8) in order to humble him, and he goes on to say that it taught him to rely on God’s sufficient grace and power (vv. 9-10). In other words, Paul couldn’t stay up on the mountain continuously, and God in His infinite wisdom chose to humble him through trials. When afflicted, we must follow Paul’s lead and not slip into depression but rather rely on God’s grace and power.
Spiritually, Elijah was drained. He was the object of intense spiritual opposition. Surely, this drained him. Evil opposition takes its toll on us, and we will be tempted to give in and not rely on God’s strength.
Ministerially, he may have felt like he had nothing left to give. He was a worn-out servant. In his book Leading on Empty, Wayne Cordeiro says, “Those whose vocation is all about giving out are wearing out” (24). He tells the story of how he went for a run before a leadership conference in California and later found himself on a curb weeping uncontrollably (ibid., 13). He asked, “What in the world is happening to me?” He learned that he had been leading on empty. Cordeiro writes, “The only way to finish strong will be to first replenish your system. If you don’t, prepare for a crash” (ibid., 26).
I have learned that replenishing is a spiritual discipline. I was on a panel recently with some other pastors. The question was asked, “What do you do to recover?” Two of the three said they take Monday off. Another had a different answer but still had a plan for personal renewal. I told them, “I’m working on it. I think I’ll give Monday a try this fall.” The fact is I have always struggled to do this. But I don’t want to cry on a curb someday because I have not taken care of myself. Beside that, I believe we’re best with a combination of work, rest, and play. I need to execute my own philosophy and rest!
As I have been doing the “Insanity” workouts, I have noticed how much they promote recovery. We have a recovery day each week and a recovery week in the middle of the nine-week workout. We also have “recovery formula” that is recommended. Gatorade also has a drink now, to go along with their pre-workout and workout drink, that is a recovery drink. We have to allow our bodies and souls to recover and be replenished. Elijah needed to recover, and so do we.
Elijah was disappointed. Though we don’t read this explicitly in the text, I think it’s a safe assumption that the “result at Carmel was not what Elijah expects” (Olley, Message, 178). Elijah probably thought revival would come to the land as people turned their hearts back to God, and even king Ahab would repent. His hopes were sky high, but then they were dashed when he heard Jezebel’s threat. This dejection had to crush him.
Elijah was isolated. We have followed Elijah in chapters 17–18, and he has been a man virtually alone. If he is indeed “a man like us,” that means he needs fellowship. In chapter 19 Elijah leaves his servant behind and departs by himself, not for prayer but for a pity party in which he is the host and the only guest.
Ryken notes, “Depression isn’t only caused by the absence of community; it also perpetuates it” (1 Kings, 523). If you are tired and discouraged, isolation isn’t what you need. You need others to encourage you and lift your spirits. We cannot go without human relationships very long. We are made for community. This reality was illustrated in the movie Castaway, in which Tom Hanks is alone on an island, and after a while he invents a friend out of a volleyball, whom he names “Wilson.” We weren’t made to be on an island by ourselves; we were made to be in community. And God has met that need physically in family and spiritually in the church.
Elijah believed half-truths that triggered feelings of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-importance (Ryken, 533–34). Elijah mentions that he isn’t any better than his fathers (v. 4). This is a self-righteous attitude. Did he previously think he was the best of all time? Sure, he had been a great prophet, but what was he currently doing? He was running away. He also states,
I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life. (v. 10)
Part of this statement was true. The majority of the people did forsake the Lord, but it seems some turned back. What of the altar? It was rebuilt. What of the prophets? Was it not the prophets of Baal who were destroyed in the previous chapter? In mixing truth and falsehood, he goes on to note that he was zealous for the Lord. True, but look at him now. What is he doing? He is running from Jezebel. Did he have reason to boast? No. The Lord has to question him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Instead of repenting and asking for grace, Elijah turns to the comparison game to make himself superior. That’s what self-righteous people do. They compare themselves to other people, just like the Pharisee with the tax collector praying in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:11). “Lord, I’m glad I’m not like this man” is the way their self-righteous prayers begin. Do you think you are superior to others? Do you think you are the only zealous one out there? Be careful of the blinding sin of self-righteousness. Only One is totally righteous, and that person isn’t you.
Notice also his feeling of self-importance. He stated that he was the only one serving God presently (vv. 10,14). He says, “I alone am left” (v. 10). In the age-old battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the servant, Elijah thought he was the last in the line, and if he throws in the towel, then God loses. He has forgotten some things about the line of David, and he has forgotten some other things. Like what about the 100 prophets Obadiah was serving? Sure, they were hiding in a cave, but look at Elijah! Further, God tells him that He has “7,000 in Israel” (v. 18). What is Elijah doing? He is exaggerating how important he is. Was he important? Most definitely, but he was not the only servant in Israel.
This feeling of self-importance can easily arise in our hearts. You might think you are the only one who cares about prayer, justice, discipleship, or evangelism, or that you are the only one ever preparing the fellowship, or giving to missions. If that is your feeling, your pride will eventually turn to despair. You must keep a sober assessment of yourself.
Next consider Elijah’s self-pity. He stated that others wanted to take his life. This was simply inaccurate. Jezebel wanted to take his life, but we don’t read that the whole nation of Israel was trying to do so. What do you call this? It’s called self-pity. Self-pity happens when you exaggerate the problem. Depressed people do that; they make things sound worse than they really are.
Believing half-truths is a temptation for us all. Exaggerating our righteousness, our importance, and our problems feeds our flesh, and we must fight it. How? Quite simply, we must believe the pure truth of the gospel. Spurgeon said,
I find myself frequently depressed—perhaps more so than any other person here. And I find no better cure for that depression than to trust in the Lord with all my heart, and seek to realize afresh the power of the peace-speaking blood of Jesus, and His infinite love in dying upon the cross to put away all my transgressions. (“The Secret of Happiness”)
Similarly, Elyse M. Fitzpatrick writes,
The depressed don’t simply need to feel better. They need a Redeemer who says, “Take heart, my son, my daughter; what you really need has been supplied. Life no longer need be about your goodness, success, righteousness, or failure. I’ve given you something infinitely more valuable than good feelings: your sins are forgiven.” (“The Gospel Cure”)
In the words of Lloyd-Jones, we spend too much time “listening to ourselves” and not enough time “talking to ourselves” (Spiritual Depression, 20). What does it look like to preach to yourself? He writes,
Would you like to be rid of this spiritual depression? The first thing you have to do is to say farewell now once and for ever to your past. Realize that it has been covered and blotted out in Christ. Never look back at your sins again. Say: “It is finished; it is covered by the Blood of Christ.” That is your first step. Take that and finish with yourself and all this talk about goodness, and look to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that true happiness and joy are possible for you. What you need isn’t to make resolutions to live a better life, to start fasting and sweating and praying. No! You just begin to say: “I rest my faith on Him alone who died for my transgressions to atone.” (Spiritual Depression, 35)
Are you drained? Are you disappointed? Are you isolated? Are you believing half-truths that trigger feelings of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-importance? What we need is this: heavy doses of grace and truth that are in Jesus.
1 Kings 19:5-21
How did God minister to His depressed servant? He ministered to him with patient grace and tender compassion. The three means of grace God used for Elijah were bread in the wilderness, a voice on the mountain, and a vision for the future.
There are several echoes of the story of Moses and the wilderness journey here. These parallels highlight God’s faithfulness, patience, and grace. Such faithfulness and grace and patience should encourage us also.
Bread in the Wilderness (vv. 5-8)
God’s first response to Elijah wasn’t rebuke. It was “eat.” He had fed him with a raven and with a widow, and now He uses an angel to feed him. After Elijah slept under the broom tree, he awoke to an angel who touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” Elijah looked and there was “a loaf of bread baked over hot stones, and a jug of water.” Elijah “ate and drank and lay down again.” This happened a second time, and then “on the strength from that food, he walked 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb.” That’s some good bread! (It actually reminds us of another mediator in the wilderness besides Moses who could go 40 days and 40 nights: Jesus; see Matt 4; Luke 4.)
How encouraging is it that God feeds His runaway prophet instead of actually answering Elijah’s prayer for death? I find this remarkably encouraging. John Piper has written a deeply edifying poem on Elijah. In part three of it, he says,
Elijah fled to Judah, then
Beyond Beersheba’s well full ten
More miles, and fell exhausted there
Beneath a spreading broom tree where
He sat and asked the Lord that he
Might die. Instead he slept. The tree
God made to give him shade, then sent
An angel down with food, who went
And woke the prophet thus: “Awake!”
Instead of death, God gives you cake.
By this you will walk forty days
And forty nights until you gaze
Like Moses on the majesty
Will ever grant your wish to die.
Come now, Elijah, eat and fly. (“Elijah, Part 3”)
Instead of death God gave him cake. Oh, the tenderness of God here! He will rebuke him later, but first we find gentleness and care.
Are you drained and dejected like Elijah? Consider also the ministry of Jesus, who tells us, “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest . . . because I am gentle” (Matt 11:28-29). What you need is spiritual rest in Christ, the bread of life (John 6:35). There we find forgiveness and joy, knowing that “no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). When you have had enough and you look to Him, you find He is enough.
Perhaps you also need physical rest. Good food and good sleep are wonderful cures to spiritual depression. Sleep and food, after all, are gifts of God (Pss 104:14-15; 127:2). Look at what kind of God you have. When you run away like Elijah, He says, “Have breakfast.” Remember when Peter denied Jesus, Jesus made him breakfast (John 21)! He renewed him physically and spiritually.
Elijah is being renewed by the grace of God. The scene here illustrates Isaiah’s words, which say we must trust in the Lord and renew our strength, then we shall “run and not grow weary . . . walk and not faint” (Isa 40:31).
It may be a stretch, but I wonder if the angel didn’t also provide some companionship for this lonely servant. Elijah needed a companion, and he received a fresh touch from this angel. Later he will receive a wonderful companion in Elisha. Elijah is a man like us, and that involves the need for company. Maybe you need some companionship. Don’t run from this need. Seek a local body of believers with whom you can fellowship. Perhaps God wants to use you to minister to lonely, depressed servants. Take them a cake and spend some time with them.
A Voice on the Mountain (vv. 9-13a)
Now Elijah goes to the mount of God. What will happen here? Will we find him still wallowing in self-pity and complaining, or will he respond with fresh vigor?
We find him railing against the Israelites. Elijah’s memory is selective (Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, 145), as demonstrated when he says the Israelites “have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets” (v. 10). Again, he believes half-truths and wallows in pity.
With the bread in the wilderness, God reminded him of the past. But Elijah is still depressed, so God will now remind him of His power once again. This time Elijah will hear God’s voice at the mount. At this mount Israel met with the Lord and discovered what God required of them (Exod 19–20). Now God’s presence and God’s voice will awaken Elijah and sustain him.
In verses 11-12 Elijah stood before the Lord, and the Lord “passed by,” and a great wind tore through the mountains. Then there was an earthquake, then a fire. But the Lord was not in these powerful displays. Instead, after a fire, Elijah heard a “soft whisper.” On hearing this, Elijah “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (v. 13).
Previously, God showed up with fire, consuming the drenched altar. People marveled. But this passage emphasizes God’s quiet ways. God often appears not in the spectacular but in the gentle whisper. Provan says, “Elijah needs to remember the past, but he also needs to realize that there is more to the Lord than fire” (1 and 2 Kings, 146).
This phrase “a soft whisper” only appears two others times. It appears in Job 4:16 and Psalm 107:29. It is used in both passages in the context of rest and refreshment in the midst of pain, distress, and fear.
Let’s remember that God often works in quiet ways. David wrote, “Your gentleness made me great” (Ps 18:35 ESV). Sometimes the fire does fall in corporate gatherings, but God also works quietly through His written Word and His Spirit in the hearts of His people. Don’t always seek controversy and drama or major conferences. Seek the God of grace in the quiet place. Get alone with Him and listen to His Word. Think on His gospel.
A Vision for the Future (vv. 13b-21)
Ryken notes, “Spiritual depression is hard to shake. It isn’t a twenty-four hour virus. Getting over it takes more than a pastor saying, ‘Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning’” (1 Kings, 530). After bread from an angel and the quiet voice of God on the mountain, Elijah is still rehearsing his speech when God asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s as if God says, “Let’s try this again.” But Elijah is inflexible. He responds with his same rehearsed speech. He’s slow to understand and change, perhaps because he doesn’t want to understand and change.
We see here that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and rich in faithful love” (Ps 103:8). God’s mercy is demonstrated here in that He gave Elijah a new vision for the future. This vision involves an assignment and a word of assurance.
His assignment is to anoint Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha (vv. 15-17). This may in fact be what the gentle whisper was about (Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, 146). The ultimate victory over Baal worship will not be solved by the victory at Carmel, instead it will come through a slow political process that will extend beyond Elijah’s life. The defeat of Baal will not happen by Elijah alone, nor will it happen in his lifetime.
Elijah’s job wasn’t just to fight well in the present but to prepare others for the future. We will read of Elijah’s instructions being lived out for many chapters to come (2 Kgs 8:7-15; 9–10). God teaches Elijah (and us) that no one is indispensible.
A new assignment often lifts us from the ashes. Such an assignment may involve preparing others for service. We must fight well in the present, but we must also prepare others for the future, as did Jesus, who fought victoriously and trained up others to take the good news to the nations after His ascension.
We read of Elijah anointing Elisha, God’s chosen prophet, in verses 19-21 (Provan thinks Elijah is not enthused about this assignment [1 and 2 Kings, 147]; I’m not sure). Who was Elisha? His name means, “God saves.” He was a farmer and apparently a wealthy one since he had “twelve teams of oxen” (v. 19). Elijah put his mantle on him, symbolizing the transference of prophetic power. Elisha’s commitment is evidenced in what follows: “He left the oxen, ran to follow Elijah” (v. 20). But then Elisha requests, “Please let me kiss my father and mother, and then I will follow you.” Elijah permits him to do so. Then we read of Elisha’s total abandonment of all things for God’s will. Elisha not only kisses his family good-bye but also kisses the world good-bye. He destroyed all of his old means of sustenance in verse 21. He tells everyone publically that he’s following God’s will. What’s more, he seems to be throwing a party to tell everyone. He isn’t reluctant; he’s excited. Here’s a picture of one saying, “You can take the world, but give me Jesus!”
Elisha’s devotion to God’s call gets echoed in Jesus’ call to discipleship. In Luke 9 Jesus calls a man to follow Him, and the man says, “I will follow You, Lord, but first let me go and say good-bye to those at my house” (Luke 9:61). He seems to say the same thing Elisha says, but instead of allowing it like Elijah did, Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). The reference to the plow sounds like 1 Kings, and so does this call. But Jesus doesn’t grant this request. Why? Jesus is greater than Elijah, and His call takes precedence over everyone and everything. Jesus demands immediate obedience and wholehearted allegiance. Elisha is being asked to follow a prophet, but we have been called to follow the Son of God. Follow Him at once, and then deal with these other details later.
So God gives Elijah a fresh vision, which includes an assignment. Part of Elijah’s assignment involved a new partner. Notice the last sentence of the chapter, “Then he left, followed Elijah, and served him” (v. 21). Here God not only gives Elijah an assignment but also gives him companionship. How this young apprentice must have given Elijah fresh strength! In 2 Kings 2:12 Elisha calls Elijah “father,” indicating the intimacy the two shared. Elisha was like an intern who apparently did some menial tasks like washing Elijah’s hands (2 Kgs 3:11).
God’s vision included not only a new assignment but also a word of assurance. We skipped over it. In verse 18 God tells Elijah, “But I will leave 7,000 in Israel—every knee that has not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Paul recalled this principle of God’s sovereign grace:
God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah? . . . I have left 7,000 men for Myself who have not bowed down to Baal. In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace. (Rom 11:2,4-5)
In the words of Paul, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, having this inscription: The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim 2:19). The doctrine of God’s electing grace should give encouragement to depressed servants.
Elijah wasn’t the only one left in Israel following the living God. He wasn’t the only seed to survive. God had a remnant. And God preserved His people until the ultimate seed, Jesus, appeared. Jesus was the slain seed, who was put into the ground, lying there silently, only to rise again triumphantly. Now Jesus has a people, not just from Israel but also of every tribe, who have been chosen by grace. God’s saving grace was a word of assurance to Elijah, and it should be a wonderful word of assurance to us as well. Look away from yourself and look to Jesus, who said, “It is finished.”
Elijah would stand on a mountain again. And he would stand there with Moses. We read of it in the Gospels. This time it isn’t Mount Horeb but the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus took with Him Peter, James, and John. They saw Jesus talking with them as the dazzling glory of Christ was unveiled for a moment. A voice from heaven was heard, “This is My Son, the Chosen One; listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35). Until we gaze on the face of Jesus, let’s feast on the Bread of Life, let’s listen to His voice, and let’s be spurred on by a glorious future that awaits all of His suffering saints.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why might Jezebel have disbelieved Yahweh after such an extraordinary display of His power?
- Is it surprising that Elijah doesn’t remain steadfast when Jezebel threatens his life, especially after Baal’s defeat at Mount Carmel? Why or why not?
- Elijah says he is no better than his fathers. Is this a true statement? Did God choose Elijah because he was better or worse than his fathers?
- How is God compassionate toward Elijah?
- Has God ever shown you compassion in dark moments?
- Has God ever sustained you through nearly impossible situations?
- What do the strong wind, earthquake, fire, and whisper teach us about God?
- Do you ever feel like you are the only faithful one left? Explain.
- In what ways can fellow believers and gospel laborers encourage one another in the faith?
- Why is fellowship important in the Christian life?