Text 1 Kings 19:1-18
And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that,he arose and ran for his life, and went 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 prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” …
What is a biblical way to think about suicide? That might sound a little dark, but it is something Elijah contemplates in our text today. It is a tragic but real part of life in this world. Have you ever been so discouraged that you just wanted to quit? Elijah was. In fact, he was so discouraged that he wanted to die. Have you ever felt this way? As we look at this scene from Elijah’s life, I hope that we can see that the Bible addresses times like these and can give us direction in our own lives when we feel this way. Most of all, this story teaches us that God does still speak, even if we don’t hear Him like we think we should.
Discouragement and Depression
Yes, Elijah the prophet—holy, powerful, and strong—became so discouraged with his ministry that he went out into the wilderness and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” What did he means by this? It wasn’t that he thought he was evil or great sin. No, he was talking about his “fathers” the prophets who had lived and worked before him. Judged by the results seen in their own lifetimes, their ministries had been unsuccessful. Elijah hoped that he would be different. His victory against the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel should have been his great triumph. After that, all of the people should have followed him, Jezebel should have been defeated, and the true worship of God should have been restored in Israel. But this didn’t happen.
No, instead we read “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.’” (1 Kings 19:1-2). Elijah’s response to this was to run “for his life,” to Beersheba and then into the wilderness where he fell into depression and made his complaint to God.
This sort of longing for death is not unique to Elijah in the Bible. As startling as it is to consider, we see something similar in Job. Though he never curses God, Job does curse the day on which he was born. He even says, “Why is light given to him who is in misery, And life to the bitter of soul, Who long for death, but it does not come, And search for it more than hidden treasures; Who rejoice exceedingly, And are glad when they can find the grave?” (Job 3:20-22) In both cases, we see holy men who have a true faith in God nevertheless coming to the point of despair.
Now, there are some of you who understand exactly how these men could come to have these feelings. You’ve had those dark nights of the soul as well, and you know exactly what I’m talking about. But others of you out there are thinking that this is all a bit far-fetched. You would never go this far. But consider; if murder is explainable as the full working out of the prior hatred in one’s heart, then we can say the same thing about longing for death. Even if you have never gone as far as Elijah, you have participated in this same sin if you have responded to disappointment in life by contemplating acts of destruction and sabotage, or if you’ve thought about just quitting and walking away from a commitment. Or perhaps you use your discouragement as an excuse to sin more. You go on binges. You become overly critical and mean-spirited. You indulge your self-pity. You get ornery. The point is the same in each of these instances. You are giving up because you think that everything has been ruined. You are taking your ball and going home. This is the sin of discouragement, and though it can seem like a rather small thing at times, it has the potential to swallow up your entire life.
The Small Voice of God
Let us see how God responds to Elijah’s request:
Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.” Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. (vs. 5-8)
This Horeb is the same as Mt. Sinai, and when verse nine actually uses the definite article in the Hebrew: “He went into the cave.” This is meant to tell us that Elijah is in the same place as Moses was when the Lord set him in the cleft of the Rock and showed him His glory. We also see the parallel in the fact that Elijah wandered backwards from the Promised Land to Sinai over the course of forty days and nights. God is treating Elijah like Moses, and He is preparing Elijah for a mystical vision.
And the Lord does come to him. But He does not actually come in a vision, does He? No, it is the “word” of the Lord which comes to him. God asks Elijah “What are you doing here?” Of course God knows. God brought him here. But He wants him to explain himself, to say why it is that he is so downtrodden and depressed. And Elijah answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” (vs. 9-10).
Elijah’s explanation is that of the frustration of a true prophet. He has been laboring in very difficult conditions, living in the wilderness, fasting and being fed by birds, raising the dead, and engaging in spiritual warfare. And just when he thought he would see a lasting victory, things all seemed to fall apart. Here he is now, hiding in exile and fearing for his life. His response is frustration and a bit of resentment. Why hasn’t God brought victory? What’s the point in continuing if things are going to be like this?
Now of course, Elijah’s low point here comes on the heels of one of his greatest highs. There is a lesson in this about our internal states. We are often blown about between extremes, and we should not put eternal stock in either the ups or the downs. We should certainly celebrate and mourn when appropriate, and we should do so quite earnestly, but we must always guard our hearts against finding true fulfillment or a final meaning in either emotion. Rather, we must learn to harness these emotions and direct them towards a higher purpose.
God’s answer to Elijah is justly famous. He commands him to stand out on the mountain top to see the Lord, and then a mighty wind came down upon the mountain and broke the rock, causing a landslide. “But,” the text says, “The Lord was not in the wind” (vs. 11). After that came the earthquake. “But the Lord was not in the earthquake.” And then came fire. Imagine the scene: Elijah standing out on the mountain in the midst of a tempest, earthquake, and miraculous fire! Surely this is what God is like and how He is going to act. But no, the Lord was not in any of these things was he?
Where was the Lord? That was Elijah’s question after all. Where are you God? Why aren’t you acting? Why are your people being killed while your covenant remains unkept? Why are you so far off? But the Lord was not in the wind. The Lord was not in the earthquake. The Lord was not in the fire.
Where was the Lord? “And after the fire a still small voice” (vs. 12).
That verse is as mysterious as it is famous. What does it mean? Literally the text says that the Lord appeared to Elijah in a thin whisper or a gentle rustle. In context the meaning is that the Lord was not in the spectacular miracles or impressive feats but rather a soft voice that might easily be missed. The point is to answer Elijah’s complaint by teaching him how God can work. We ought not be focused on the big and impressive, but instead we must be attentive to hear God’s voice when it is small.
God then repeats His question, and Elijah repeats his answer:
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” (vs. 13b-14)
To this God doesn’t give an explanation. Indeed, God has no need to explain Himself to us. Instead, He points to the future:
Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (vs. 15-18)
As it turns out, God wasn’t finished. Go back to work prophet! There’s more still to be done. And we should remember this in our lives. God isn’t finished. You don’t have any idea of what He’s up to or the things He has put in place to bring about His purposes. The kingdom is bigger than you or me. It’s bigger than your project or your cause. You’ve got to zoom out and see the whole thing.
Hearing God’s Voice, Even When It is Small
All of us, even mighty men of God, can be given to disappointment and depression. We can even want to quit. The feeling itself is merely the converse of our passion and energy. But we cannot give in to these feelings. We cannot be misled into thinking that our apparent failure is sufficient grounds for dropping out. To do so would be to take the easy way out, the loser’s way. It would also make the mistake of assuming that the ball is in our court. It’s not. It never was. God is the one in charge, of everything. And you see, if the ball isn’t yours in the first place, then you can’t take it and go home.
Even in the face of evil, God reigns. And he calls you to do your job, especially in the small and ordinary ways. So what are you doing? Why are you cast down? Get to work! You don’t know all that the Lord is doing. He has seven thousand other prophets out there just like you. And they are right where they need to be. There are new kings to be anointed and new prophets to be summoned. Elijah may not have seen the end of the story, but the end of the story was, in fact, written. And it could not fail.
This understanding provides comfort because it provides perspective. God is there, and He is not silent. Even when His voice is small, it is His voice: the voice of God. He is at work. And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. And best of all, we do know the end of the story. The Son of God is victorious, risen indeed! Jesus is our king, and He reigns even now.
This lesson can be applied to all of us. We may not all be on the front lines of the high-profile battles. But we are all prophets. Our calling in life is a calling by God, to participate in the work of His kingdom.
Are you frustrated with life? How about with your job, your marriage, or your kids? Did you just miss your big chance? Has God disappointed you?
Do not be fooled. It’s not over. You don’t see the whole picture. Listen for His voice. He has not abandoned you. There is a rustling still. There is work to be done. Do not lose hope. Discouragement is really only short-sightedness. It is stopping before the end of the story.
Indeed, we are called to walk not by sight but by faith. This means we won’t always see where we are going. We won’t always see the road ahead. Things won’t be like what we expect. But God’s voice is always there. He has given us His Son. And He has given us His Spirit to give our hearts the peace which passes all understanding. And we know that He is working in all things. And so people of God, listen for the voice of God in your life and in your calling. Hear His voice, especially His still small voice. In that you can hope.