"Divine Direction when Discouraged"
August 5, 2007 1Kings 19:1-18
All Shook Up
Have you been challenged by situations that seemed beyond your capacity to deal with? Does life seem to be a series of problems without any easy solution? Sometimes we need to seek the Lord's help and direction when we're tempted to become depressed.
Here's a cute email 'forward' that might serve as a bit of a parable for today's message. MENSA is an organization whose members score in the top 2% on certain standardised IQ tests. At a MENSA Convention, the story goes, several members lunched at a local café. While dining, they discovered that their salt shaker contained pepper and their pepper shaker was full of salt. How could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling and using only the implements at hand? Clearly, this was a job for MENSA!
The group debated and presented ideas and finally came up with a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution. "Ma'am," they said, "we couldn't help but notice that the pepper shaker contains salt and the salt shaker..." "Oh," the waitress interrupted. "Sorry about that." So she unscrewed the caps of both and switched them!
Sometimes life's challenges loom bigger than they really need to be. When circumstances get us down - when everything's the wrong way 'round, like the pepper in the salt-shaker - rather than getting discouraged, we can first turn to God and seek His help. He may just come along and show us a whole new perspective on the situation. In today's lesson from Elijah's life, God challenges the prophet, suggesting things aren't as bad as they seem: God's got things under control in His sovereignly wise way. And He's still got a place for us in His marvellous plan.
Dragged Down into the Depths of Despair
When we last checked in with the prophet Elijah in 1Kings 18, he'd won a tremendous victory. The contest on Mt Carmel demonstrated conclusively that Yahweh, not Baal, was God. After fire fell from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, the people had seized and slaughtered the hundreds of prophets of Baal and Asherah. It was a turning-point in the country's slide into idolatry. Elijah prayed, and God ended a three-year drought by sending a great rain-storm. The chapter closed with a dramatic scene of Elijah running as a messenger ahead of the king's chariot, heralding a new spiritual regime - he hoped; while God's invisible chariot rolled over the horizon atop the mighty thunder-clouds, bringing life-giving moisture and renewal.
Hold that image: it might have led to something, except for one thing - King Ahab was married to Jezebel, the Baal-worshiping daughter of the King of Sidon. As soon as her husband reported what Elijah had done, she sent a message to Ezekiel (19:2) swearing by an oath that she was going to kill him by the next day.
Here endeth the revival - for now, anyway. When Elijah heard the threat, v3, he "was afraid and ran for his life." He high-tailed it for Beersheba, some 70 miles to the south and well inside the safety of the neighbouring kingdom, Judah. He left his servant there and kept right on going. Heading a day's journey into the wilderness, he came to a "broom tree" [picture]: these genus Retama shrubs thrive in arid locations and grow up to 3m high and 6 m wide. In the searing heat, sweaty and worn out from his flight, Elijah crashed in its shade. You might say he was 'bushed'(!). Worse than that, his emotions had sunk so low, he didn't see the point in going on living. Perhaps starting to have suicidal thoughts flit through his head. V4, he "sat down under it and prayed that he might die."I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors."" (I always remember Howard Hendricks speaking on this passage and suggesting someone might have responded, "Whoever said you were?!")
Doesn't that sum up depression pretty well? Afraid; worn out; not seeing the use in keeping on living. Consider the factors bringing Elijah into his depressed state. First there was the EXCITEMENT of the contest at Mount Carmel. Wow, what a challenge! Must have got the blood pumping and adrenaline coursing through his veins. Adrenaline's helpful during times of critical activity, but you can only run on it so long - then boom!
There was EXALTATION - Elijah proved to be the one true prophet, rather than all the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah who ate at Jezebel's table - the "established religion" leaders.
Next in this mix were ENEMIES: Ahab viewed Elijah as treasonous at best, calling him "you troubler of Israel" (18:17); and the queen has issued a death warrant for him. That's as bad as having the OPP and Sureté on your tail. And surely there were relatives of those 850 dead prophets who'd be out for revenge.
If you ever want to profile an evil lady, do some study on Jezebel. She was a cool, cruel cat. She came from the school of royally 'throwing your weight around' as Jesus observed pagan tyrants have a tendency to operate (Mk 10:42). When her husband sulked that Naboth wouldn't sell his ancestral vineyard, Jezebel engineered a scheme to have Naboth killed in cold blood, so Ahab could get what he wanted (21:8). Even at the end, when Jehu (who would be the next king) came riding to attack, this Madame Terrible 'painted her eyes, arranged her hair and looked out of a window' (2Kings 9:30). "Never let'em see you flinch" - she had sinister style. And look up her daughter Athaliah, who was just as evil - when she found out her son was dead, Athaliah "proceeded to destroy the whole royal family" (2Kings 11:1). Yes, Elijah had significant ENEMIES - like being on the Mafia's hit list.
He starts to EXIT - running away, out of the country, to the edge of civilization, becoming more and more isolated all the time. He leaves his trusty servant at Beersheba, then scoots off into the wilderness. Away by himself, all alone: depression can tend to drive us away from what would be healthy social contact.
There's definitely EXHAUSTION: Jezreel to Beersheba is a taxing journey on foot, then he went on from there into the southern desert. V5, when he gets to the broom tree, all he can do is lay down under it and fall asleep. This was exhausting, running for his life.
Last, EGO is a prominent factor. Feeling threatened and attacked, he circles the wagons and hauls up the drawbridge (pardon the mixed metaphor!) until all he can see is himself. "Poor me" echoes all through his whine, vv 10 & 14: "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." All he can muster up is a pity party. The mission is abandoned; all he can think of now is himself, how everybody's out to get him, how unfairly he's been treated. "I...I...I..." When we're depressed, it's hard to think of anything else - anyone other than yourself.
Life is no rose garden, so it's not uncommon for people to arrive at this state. What things drive you down? What enemies are you facing? What exhausts you? Are you finding yourself more and more isolated?
Meier Clinics were founded by Dr Paul Meier and are based on Christian convictions. They provide this background on causes of depression. "Sometimes stress builds up in our lives and overwhelms our ability to cope. You may have lost someone you love, had a baby, or been too busy for too long. Ongoing stress like coping on a low income, facing rising debt, or feeling lonely and isolated can lead to depression. Sometimes people get depressed for no obvious reason; the heavy feelings just seem to come out of the blue. This sometimes happens when people come from families who seem more vulnerable to becoming depressed after relatively mild stress. No matter how you became depressed, the effects are debilitating and will affect your study if left untreated.
"...If you've been feeling miserable more often than not over the past two weeks or more, and you've stopped enjoying things that used to be fun, you might be depressed. Check the symptoms...if you pick three or more it is likely you are experiencing a bout of depression.
•Finding it hard to get motivated and feel interested in things
•Wanting to avoid friends and everyday activities
•Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
•Losing interest in eating, or overeating
•Losing weight, without dieting, or gaining weight
•Finding it difficult to get to sleep, waking during the night, or waking too early and not being able to get back to sleep; alternatively, wanting to sleep all the time.
•Thinking about, or planning suicide
•Having unpleasant, negative thoughts (like feeling guilty or that you are a bad or unworthy person)
•Getting pains in your body or headaches that don't seem to have any physical cause"
We can see several of these same factors in Elijah. But wait - God's got a helpful intervention planned!
God's Refreshing and Re-framing
V5, "All at once an angel touched him and said, "Get up and eat." Where did HE (or SHE) come from? Way out here in the middle of nowhere? The Lord's angels are keeping track of His servants. Hebrews 1(14) says angels are "ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation". No matter where you are on the face of the planet, God's keeping watch over you, His angel encamps around those who fear Him, to deliver them (Ps 34:7). Hagar, Jacob, and Jesus all likewise had significant encounters with God's messengers in the wilderness (Gen 21:15ff; 28:11ff; Mt 4:11).
V6, Elijah looks around and - whaddaya know, there by his head is a cake of baked bread and a jar of water (maybe we could say 'angel food cake'?). He eats and drinks and lies down for more sleep. Later the angel wakes him and urges him to eat some more, saying "the journey is too much for you." God understands our human needs; so strengthened, v8 Elijah travels all the way to Horeb or Mt Sinai. There he spends the night in a cave.
Here's where God really starts interacting with him. Note the Lord doesn't condemn, but coaches; not upbraiding him, "Why are you 100 miles off course out in the middle of nowhere?", but asking questions (a favourite technique of Jesus) - v9, "The word of the Lord came to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God used questions with Adam in the garden, Hagar, and Peter after the denial (Gen 3:9; 16:8; Jn 21:15ff). When God asks a question, it's not to gain information (He knows everything already); it's to help us process things from His viewpoint.
V10, Elijah spouts off his prepared whine about being very zealous himself but everybody else forsaking God's covenant, breaking down altars, killing prophets, and now he's the only one left and they're out to get him. In response, God prepares a little object lesson. First there's a great and powerful wind, tearing the mountains apart, shattering rocks. Then there's an earthquake, shaking the ground; then a roaring fire, but the Lord was not in any of them. Finally there's "a gentle whisper", KJV "a still small voice" - Hebrew "a little whisper of voice or sound". Elijah recognizes the presence of the Lord when he hears the gentle whisper, covers his face out of respect and comes to stand at the entrance to the cave. God repeats the question and the prophet repeats the same answer - apparently not too quick on the uptake, either unable or unwilling to grasp the meaning of the action-parable. He's still locked in feeling like a loser.
What was God getting at with the hurricane, earthquake, and fire? Why wasn't He in them, announcing His presence with them? He did so at Mt Sinai when giving the Ten Commandments, using thunder, lightning, and a trumpet blast, so everyone trembled (Ex 19:16). The Psalmist talks about God coming with fire, and a tempest around Him (Ps 50:3). The prophet Nahum (1:3,6) says God's way is in the whirlwind and storm, His wrath is poured out like fire, and rocks shatter before Him. So it's not that these are never associated with the way God operates - in fact Elijah's recent victory involved fire and stormclouds. What's God getting at here?
Elijah's recent ministry experience had been very confrontational and dramatic. He was maybe expecting immediate, equally dramatic results - an instant revival. But as the word of the Lord was revealed to Zechariah, "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD Almighty." (Zec 4:6) God may work dramatically and sensationally, but more often He works quietly, unobtrusively: the Holy Spirit is gentle with us. It's not about POWER but PRESENCE; not about punishment but God's saving plan. Contrast Elijah's blame of the Israelites with, for example, Abraham pleading for Sodom, Moses pleading for the idolaters, or Daniel identifying with and interceding for a wayward people (Gen 18:23; Ex 32:11f; Daniel 9:5-16). God's not looking for complainers, but companions to reach out and draw back the lost. The quiet voice is God's preferred style rather than destructive wind, quake, or fire. A commentary notes, "Jesus Christ, God's ultimate word of God, came not in a sensational way, but in a humble way."
God's changing Elijah's perspective - like that waitress coming along and switching the shaker-tops, helping the 'geniuses' see the problem another way. It doesn't all depend on Elijah. "It's not about me." The sovereign God is still in control of the universe, however haywire things may look in my little world at the present time. Evil Jezebels will have their come-uppance. Here God moves to give simple directions: the mission is being delegated. Vv 15-17, Elijah and his followers are to do some anointing / appointing: a foreign king, Hazael, will punish the idolatrous Israelites. Jehu will be anointed as king over Israel to execute judgment against Ahab, Jezebel, and their household. And Elijah is to anoint Elisha as his own personal successor: when you've got a God-sized task - disciple someone!
The Lord has refreshed Elijah physically, and re-framed his perspective in terms of the long-term mission. It doesn't all depend on little Elijah: he's one important part of a long-term plan, and God's bringing others on the scene to follow the action through. Oh, and, by the way, Elijah (God says, v18) - I have 7,000 faithful people reserved in Israel who haven't caved in to Baal worship. You're not alone. Elijah seems to have a bit of a blind spot here, because just a chapter before Obadiah had said he'd saved 100 of the Lord's prophets in two caves. There are more on your side than you think!
When Life Gets You Down...Look Up
When you think you're beat - call out to God, who can help. The apostle Paul in 2Corinthians 12(9) was tempted to get discouraged and depressed because he was tormented by some undisclosed 'thorn in the flesh', but Jesus communicated to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." God sovereignly had preserved a faithful remnant in Elijah's time; His grace is available to show His strength in our times of weakness and stress.
When you start feeling 'down' like Elijah, seek God's perspective and power. Mark Sutton and Dr Bruce Hennigan offer this advice in Dealing with Depression on the Focus on the Family website: "When I feel depression beginning to clamp its cold hands upon me, I do several things:
1.Above anything else, I make sure I'm still reading my Bible and praying. Depression often makes you want to do just the opposite, but: You have the power, in Christ, to do what God wills.Say no to your emotions and yes to communion with God during these times.
2.I thank God for loving me and bringing me through the bout of depression. This is important. Both of these first two actions go against what I feel. My depression makes me want to stay away from everyone -- including God. And it also makes me feel as if no one could really love me -- including God. But in reading the Bible, praying to God, and thanking God for his love, I am saying that: God's Word, not my present emotional outlook, is my authority. In thanking God for bringing me through the depression, I am also exercising my faith in God and in his Word, precisely at the moment I don't feel like doing it.
3.I try to keep from making any major decision. I've learned that life looks a great deal more bleak when I'm depressed. Therefore, any decision I make during this time is bound to be coloured by a false sense of what's going on in my relationships, my business and my family.
...Here are a few additional thoughts to keep in mind for those struggling with depression:
•At times, depression can relate to emotions that have been ignored or pushed away for years. Be willing to face them through Christ's strength. As Matthew 5:4 says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
•Though not advisable in every situation, medication may provide needed physical help for people struggling with depression. Talk to a doctor about it.
•Reaching out for Christian counseling can provide support, help you address underlying causes of your depression, and help you develop a plan of action."
Praise God, He hasn't left us alone; when you're down, look up! Christ's "gentle whisper" is ready to direct us forward in seeing and following His saving, wholesome path. Let's pray.