The first memory I have of my father is when I was a child of about eight and a half years old. He was driving a rental car down the dirt road where I lived with my younger brother, mother, and grandparents, and he drove up into the grass in front of my grandparents’ trailer and got out of the car. He was a man with balding blond hair, pale skin, and a somewhat portly build. He came bearing presents, a sweater and a children’s atlas, a book of maps. He was there because my mother had filed for divorce after a separation of about five years, when my mother had rather hurriedly packed a suitcase and left on a bus from Western Pennsylvania to Central Florida, where her parents lived, while my father was away on a Sunday morning at Spokesman’s Club.
When someone has a family legacy that is difficult and unpleasant, there is a strong desire to do and be better than our fathers. When our families deeply hurt each other, do horrible things to each other, it is easy to say to ourselves that we will be and do better ourselves, that we will respect other people and not abuse them, that we will love other people and not hurt them so deeply. We do not realize often just how difficult it is to change the deeply ingrained bad habits of our past, whether we are talking about families or about cultures. Today I would like to talk about a man in the Bible who like me struggled with the same sort of problems in trying to correct the evil cycles of the past while wrestling mightily with the demons of loneliness and depression. This man’s name was Elijah.
Elijah of Tishbe
We do not know much about the family background or history of Elijah of Tishbe. We do not even know his father’s name. We do know that he came from the inhabitants of Gilead, and so he was not a refined city-born aristocrat but was rather from the small town of Tishbe in the country. When we first meet him in the Bible he seems to come out of nowhere, pronouncing the curse of a drought without any warning because of the sins of his nation and their wicked king Ahab. We read of this in 1 Kings 17:1-7. Let us turn there. 1 Kings 17:1-7 reads: “And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.” Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Get out of here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. And it shall be that you will drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord, for he went and stayed by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook. And it happened after a while that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land.”
One thing that was true, and sad, about Elijah was that he always seemed to work alone. He was a prophet who seems a bit harsh, prefering the bold and provocative message to the gentle word. He appears out of nowhere, says there is going to be a drought until he says otherwise, and then disappears to be fed twice a day by ravens far from other people in a lonely creek (or crick as they would say it in Western Pennsylvania). Throughout Elijah’s work he acted alone. For most of his time he had no assistant, he appears to have never married or had any children, and he does not even appear to have had many friends even among the godly believers of Israel.
Sadly, he had a reputation for his solitude and loneliness even among those who worshiped God. Let us turn to 1 Kings 18:7-15. Here we see that even a servant of God found Elijah’s patterns of working to be rather lonely. 1 Kings 18:7-15 reads: “Now as Obadiah [a servant of God] was on his way, suddenly Eljiah met him; and he recognized him and fell on his face, and said, “Is that you, my lord Elijah.” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’ “ So he said, “How have I sinned, that you are delivering your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to hunt for you; and when they said, ‘He is not here,’ he took an oath from the kingdom or nation that they could not find you. And now you say, ‘Go tell your master, “Elijah is here!” ’ And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the Spirit of the Lord will carry you to a place I do not know; so when I go and tell Ahab, and he cannot find you, he will kill me. But I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth. Was it not reported to my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid one hundred men of the Lord’s prophets, fifty to a cave, and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your master, “Elijah is here.” ’ He will kill me!” Then Elijah said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely present myself to him today.”
Let us think about this passage a little. Elijah seems to be a harsh man, bluntly telling the godly Obadiah that he was there, not seeming to be compassionate for the well-being of Ahab’s godly steward. Here we see that Elijah was not alone in fearing God—Obadiah, part of the royal household, was a believer in God who had risked his life to save a hundred prophets of God from Queen Jezebel’s murderous rage. Let us remember this fact, because it will be important later. We do not know why Elijah worked alone. We do not know if he was simply one of those people who was shy and did not like to spend a lot of time around others, or whether his working alone was due to other reasons. We simply do not have enough evidence to say. But we do know that even among godly people Elijah had a reputation for vanishing by himself into thin air often, and that he did not really have a close relationship even with other godly believers. When people struggle that fiercely with intimacy, something is clearly very wrong, even if we do not know exactly what happened.
Shortly after meeting Ahab, Elijah proposed a test of faith between himself and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Again, he was all alone. Let us read about this in 1 Kings 18:20-24. 1 Kings 18:20-24 reads: “So Ahab sent for all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together on Mount Carmel. And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I alone am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” So all the people answered and said, “It is well spoken.”
Why did Elijah think he was alone? Was he not just talking to Obadiah, a godly man in the midst of King Ahab’s palace staff, who was steward over Ahab’s house? Did not Obadiah just tell him that he had saved a hundred of Yahweh’s prophets in two caves and fed them with bread and water? Why did Elijah think he was alone? Intellectually he should have known that he was not alone among God’s prophets. He was certainly outnumbered. But the people of God have always been outnumbered in this world. There have always been far more people who are evil than who are truly godly. But loneliness is not an intellectual thing, but a matter of the heart. Elijah said that he alone was left among God’s prophets because he felt alone. It is a terrible thing to feel alone. Unfortunately, I am like Elijah in that I know that terrible feeling very well.
So, Elijah won the test. Baal’s prophets slashed themselves, limped around in a Babylonian type of dance, and Baal did not give fire because Baal was only a demon and not God. But because the Lord is God, He gave fire to Elijah’s bull even after it had been soaked in water three times. The people of Israel rose up and killed the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. And the promised rain was sent to the drought-parched land of Israel. Elijah had won a great victory, but almost immediately afterward he was plunged into a deep and suicidal depression, right after the moment of his greatest public triumph.
The Depression of Elijah
Why was Elijah depressed? We find out a few details in 1 Kings 19:1-4. 1 Kings 19:1-4 reads: “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 at 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!”
Notice again how Elijah is alone. Elijah had thought that the victory at Mount Carmel would lead Israel to repent with a whole heart and obey God and possibly overthrow the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. But when he saw that there had been no permanent change, no choice to follow God, Elijah lost the will to live. He thought his life was finished, over, and he simply wanted God to take his life instead of Jezebel. He felt as if all he had worked for in life had been pointless and futile. This is a common problem for those of us who try to overcome the sins of our fathers. We have a fervent desire to do better than they, not because we hate our parents, but because we know how much we have suffered because of what they did in fear and ignorance and insecurity and brokenness, and even love that was not understood and recognized.
Have any of you ever been so depressed that you were suicidal, that you wanted to take your life? I don’t want you to answer me or to raise a hand, just to think within yourselves. About three years ago a friend of mine asked me to join a community orchestra that was trying to get started in the city of St. Petersburg, Florida. They needed a violist and I was the only one he knew. I lived on the other side of Tampa Bay from him, in the city of Tampa, and to and from orchestra practice, which was every Monday night for three hours from 6 to 9 PM, I had to cross a long bridge called the Howard Franklin Bridge over the bay both ways. On the way to practice, I was rushing from work (there was not enough time to stop to eat on the way), and there was plenty of fast-moving traffic along the way. But after the practice, which was very fun, it was dark, and the streets were empty, and I had to drive alone and hungry over the dark water. Both loneliness and nighttime have always been difficult for me, and leaving that group of musicians to be lonely again was a terrible thing. On a weekly basis I would be tempted to drive off that bridge into the dark water, deep in gloomy reflections as to whether the world would be better off without me or not.
Some months later, I became so deeply depressed over various problems in my life that I could not solve that I lacked the energy to eat and bathe. It is a terrible thing to feel that depressed, and unfortunately my family was not very understanding about it. They thought I was simply being lazy and that I just needed to work harder. I wish they had been more helpful and more compassionate, even if I am not always a very easy person to be compassionate to. Eventually I decided that the world was not a better place without me, but I also understood that I needed to be in a better place, even if I did not know how to get there on my own.
Elijah had the same sort of depression that I did. Let us read on. 1 Kings 19:5-11 continues the story of Elijah’s depression, and it reads: “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 arise, 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. And there he went into a cave and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” So he said, “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.”
It is never a good thing when God asks you what you are doing somewhere. It means that you should be somewhere else and doing something else. But God is merciful and patient with our weaknesses, for which we should all be very glad, and compassionate and understanding in our suffering. Here we see once again that Elijah thought he was alone. He was certainly zealous for God’s truth and God’s people. He desired their well being and their repentance, and was deeply grieved and saddened by their rejection of God’s laws and God’s ways and their persecution of God’s people. But he was not alone. There were at least a hundred and one other godly people in Israel at that time that Elijah had found out from Obadiah, who himself, we must remember, was a godly man. Elijah was not alone after all, but he felt alone, and that is what matters within ourselves.
So, what did God do to help Elijah out of his deep depression? Let us find out in 1 Kings 19:11-18. 1 Kings 19:11-18 reads: “Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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 a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “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.” 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. And you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elijah 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, Elijah will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.””
So, how did God help Elijah out of his depression? First, God gave Elijah a lesson in how God works in quiet ways. We often expect to hear God’s voice in the earthquake, in the fierce wind, and in the fire. The loud and dramatic disasters are where we expect to hear God talking in anger about the sins of mankind. And truly God does speak in such dramatic ways sometimes. But we cannot expect God to only speak in those ways. Sometimes God speaks in a gentle voice with a light tap on the shoulder, patiently listening to us even if we are speaking in sincere but misguided ignorance. God is both just and merciful, both strict and loving. It is a hard balance for us to find. Before correcting Elijah’s mistaken belief that he was alone as a believer in Israel, God patiently and gently listened to Elijah, something we should all do to those who are suffering.
Second, God gave Elijah a task. God reminded Elijah that the work of guiding and encouraging a righteous remnant and judging a wicked and rebellious people is not the work of a day on Mount Carmel, or even a generation. Godly leadership requires godly succession, and so Elijah, whose life was nearly done, would be given the charge to anoint three successors—Hazael as king of Syria to punish Israel through defeat in war, Jehu as king of Israel to wipe out Baal religion, and Elisha as a prophet in Elijah’s place to continue the work of preaching and practicing God’s ways as an example to Israel. By showing Elijah that God’s work was not done, He gave Elijah a reason to keep working despite his discouragement, in the realization that God’s Kingdom will not be built in a day.
The same lessons apply to us. We need to learn to hear God’s voice whether it is in small things or big things, loud words or gentle affection. We too need to be reminded that overcoming the sins of our fathers and living God’s way requires a lot of effort, that we cannot do it alone, and that it will take years of hard work and self-examination before we can even begin to do it well. And we need the encouragement of God and other people to remind us that we do not follow God alone, but as part of a loving body of Christ. Some of us need to be reminded of that fact, especially those of us who are prone to feeling particularly lonely.
How Not To Be Like Elijah
We have spent a lot of time today dealing with the problem of Elijah’s loneliness and depression, as well as about my own. How do we avoid being like Elijah though? What do we need to do to avoid repeating the same mistakes that he made? Let us review what it is that Elijah did wrong and point out what we can do right. First, Elijah cut himself off from others whom he knew were believers. It is a temptation in these days to be a lone Christian. We need to resist this temptation. We are all better served by having other people around us who respect us and look after us, whether that means reminding us when we are going in the wrong path, or encouraging us when we are down, or showing a willingness to do the difficult of work of communicating thoughts and feelings with us. Being a believer of Jesus Christ means that we need to build, repair, and maintain relationships with other godly people and not let ourselves be divided for silly reasons.
Second, we must learn patience. It is vastly easier to preach patience than it is to practice, and I am aware that I am not always the most patient person in my own life, as much as I recognize the need to be so, to recognize that God works on a timescale much larger than ours and that He is not in a hurry. Elijah thought that one single victory against the priests of Baal would signal the repentance of Israel and the restoration of Israel’s place in God’s covenant. It was not to be. A nation has to be converted one believer at a time, and each of us who has committed to God have to grow in grace and knowledge on a day by day basis, wrestling with our demons, and developing virtue and patience. This is not easy, but nothing worthwhile happens overnight. No relationships, whether between people and other people or between ourselves and God, become strong overnight, as much as we might like that to be the case. We must be patient, and not let our nervousness and impatience ruin the slow growth that takes time to bear fruit in our lives. After all, if we are believers, we are not interested only in today, nor even only this lifetime, but we are focused on eternity. And eternity is endless time, so we do not need to rush everything. Believe me, we have more time than we fear, if less time than we would like in this life.
Third, the depression of Elijah was caused by mistaken conclusions drawn from mistaken evidence. By cutting himself off from other people, Elijah cut himself off from an adequate understanding of Israel’s spiritual state. He did not understand the depth of Israel’s moral corruption, which invited God’s judgment on a rebellious people who refused to choose God’s way in their hearts, no matter what miracles God provided them with. But on the other hand, Elijah also did not understand that there was a solid and strong righteous remnant that God was still working with. Even if most of Israel was hopelessly corrupt even in the age of Ahab, there were still seven thousand who had not bowed down to or kissed Baal, who God could build into part of His family. And the same is true for us. Our lives and our relationships with God and with each other are generally neither as good as we would hope, nor as bad as we might fear. Therefore we need to avoid both irrational exuberance as well as despair, because the fastest and surest way to despair is to get our hopes up beyond reality and then to see them crushed. We must therefore do all we can to make sure our hopes are based on the reality of God’s word.
Today we have discussed the depression of Elijah and how it stemmed both from his unrealistic expectations that God would suddenly fix Israel and in his loneliness as a result of not recognizing and relating to other godly believers. These are not problems that Elijah alone struggled with, for I know that I myself have struggled very deeply with those same problems for a long time. Perhaps you have as well. We need to remember that God is a loving Father, patient and understanding, even if He is strict, and we cannot forget either His love for us or His just standards of behavior that He holds His children to. And we also need to remember ourselves to provide care and compassion and patient understanding to those who labor under the painful and mistaken belief that they are alone in this world, and that the world would be a better place without them, and that they have no purpose and importance, no part of a larger plan of God. Even believers of God who struggle zealously for His ways can suffer from such illusions. Let us therefore cultivate within ourselves those qualities of God that allow us not only to be zealous for righteousness’ sake and for God’s ways, but also allow for us to show love and concern to those brethren of God who feel deeply alone and unloved, and with a lot of time and a lot of soul searching and a lot of work and a lot of help from God we can all be better than our fathers. Let us remember that Elijah was a man of great faith and great talent and ability, and look at how patient God had to be with him. Let us therefore remember to be as patient with others and ourselves, knowing that God too is merciful and longsuffering with us.