In the Wilderness
Topic: Sermon Passage: 1 Kings 19:1–18
In the Wilderness: Our Brokenness, God’s Tenderness
1 Kings 19:1-18
A couple of weeks ago I watched one of the cantonal press conferences, and what interested me was how they described that it wasn’t just intensive care beds that were under pressure due to COVID, it was also the psychiatric services.
Which really shouldn’t surprise us. The combination of fear for physical health, concern about job security, and social isolation, with no obvious end in sight, is a potent cocktail to negatively affect people’s mental health.
Which also means that you shouldn’t be surprised if you are also feeling more down, more low in spirit, more depressed than normal. And last week we saw how Christ can calm our fears when circumstance seem to threaten us. Today, we’re going to look at the prophet Elijah and where you can find help when the circumstances of life begin to get to you emotionally, psychologically, mentally.
The Cause of Spiritual Depression
Now, Elijah was a great man - not just in terms of his external ministry, but in his inner life. I mean, you know very well that you can be a highly effective and gifted leader, but your inner life and character be a mess. But Elijah’s greatness was internal as well as external. He was a man of faith, but also of integrity. Even when that meant him standing alone and exposed.
And yet, in today’s passage we see him emotionally and psychologically crumbling. He runs away from the ministry God’s called him to and he wishes he could die. Why?
Firstly, he’s afraid for his life. He’s just defeated the prophets of Baal and Queen Jezebel is threatening him. And if you know anything of Jezebel, her words are not idle words. And so, v3, ‘[Elijah] was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life.’
And fear over your personal safety, or like now, over your health, can breed an inner sense of uncertainty and insecurity. And if that’s prolonged it can lead to emotional exhaustion. It’s why Elijah prays, “it is enough” (v4). How many times have you’ve said, or thought that in the last year? That the situation we find ourselves in is getting to you.
Secondly, there’s isolation and loneliness. Now, the truth is that Elijah was not alone, but it felt like it: Verse 10, “I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life.” In the Message translation of this passage, Eugene Peterson describes the tree that Elijah sits under in the desert as ‘a lone broom bush.’ Picture that. In the vast expanse of the desert there’s a single tree, and Elijah is sitting under it. It’s a picture of just how alone he feels.
And that sense of isolation and loneliness isn’t just physical. It’s not just the physical absence of others - it’s that sense that you’re alone in carrying the burden. That’s how Elijah felt, and maybe you know what that feels like. That no-one else really understands what you’re going through.
But there’s a third reason why Elijah is crumbling. And that is that he has literally, and metaphorically, just come down from a mountain top. In chapter 18, on the top of Mount Carmel, he has just secured a stunning victory against the false prophets and idols that have stolen the hearts of the people. But it is also that triumph that has provoked Jezebel to hunt him down.
When we go hiking, it is great to get up above the cloud. But eventually you have to come back down, and when you do, the fog and the grey seem all the heavier after the sunshine. And like Elijah, you can be particularly sensitive to psychological valleys after mountain top successes, whether those successes are spiritual highs or some small or large triumph at home or work.
Great mountain top experiences are often followed by a valley. Moses met God at the top of Sinai, and received the 10 commandments, only to descend and find Israel in full scale rebellion. At his baptism, Jesus heard God the Father tell him he was his beloved Son, only to go into the wilderness and have satan question those very words. On the mount of transfiguration Jesus again heard those words, and the disciples got a glimpse of his glory, but waiting in the valley was a demonised child and doubt. Paul and Barnabas returned from a highly successful mission trip only for their partnership to spiral downwards into personal conflict.
So whether it is the fear that breeds inner insecurity, or isolation and loneliness, or the valley that follows the mountain, we can all find ourselves vulnerable to periods of spiritual or emotional darkness.
Charles Spurgeon the great preacher knew this only too well for himself. And in an essay called The Minister’s Fainting Fits, Spurgeon writes:
As it is recorded that David, in the heat of battle, waxed faint, so may it be written of all the servants of the Lord. Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy. There maybe here and there men of iron, to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these; and as for ordinary men, the Lord knows, and makes them to know, that they are but dust. Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means… I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon, that younger men might not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy; and that sadder men might know that one upon whom the sun has shone right joyously did not always walk in the light.
So if, at the moment, you know something of Spurgeon’s melancholy, you can also know that something strange has not happened to you. Proverbs 24:10 says, ‘If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.’ And how true that is! And yet Moses’ arms sagged in the battle; In prison, John the Baptist appeared to hesitate. Jesus grew weary and in the garden of Gethsemane prayed, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ He was as Isaiah said he would be, ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ (Is 53:3).
But if this is a common experience, what Elijah shows us is that things can get darker before the dawn.
The Downward Descent
For a significant period of my adult life I’ve suffered from dark days, when I would spiral downwards into despair. And one of the most helpful things I’ve found is simply to learn to recognise when it’s starting. To spot the signs, and take avoiding measures.
So, look how it happens with Elijah, and if you recognise this as a problem for yourself, begin to construct an anatomy of your own downward descent, so you can learn to stop it.
Firstly, it begins with fear and anxiety. He hears Jezebel’s threat and he’s worried. What’s the trigger for you? What makes you take your eyes off your security in God and makes you start looking more at your circumstances? Is it personal conflict? Excessive tiredness? Overwork? Financial strains? Whatever it is, learn to recognise it.
Then Elijah takes the next step down: v3, He ‘Ran for his life and came to Beersheba… and left his servant there.’ So he flees, but he also withdraws. Do you? Maybe you get anxious and worried about something and you close up, you withdraw from those who might help you. You turn in on yourself.
Then comes his next step down: and it’s a grace-less self-reproach, a self-loathing or self-pity. Verse 4, “it is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” Now Elijah was far from perfect, but he was also way better than his ancestors. But right now he hates himself. His faults are all too obvious to him. But he’s seeing himself through his own harsh eyes, the eyes of self-justification, or thinking he has to be good enough, and not through the lens of God’s grace to those who don’t deserve it.
And doing that leads to another step down - despair. Verse 4, “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” His self-loathing may not exactly make him suicidal, but he is at least ready for God to end it all. He just wants this struggle over.
And like a man descending a staircase into a pit, he reaches the bottom. And the problem with the bottom is that everything seems worse down there. Verse 10, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. [Which is Correct]. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant [correct] , thrown down your altars [correct], and killed your prophets with the sword [correct], and I, even I only am left [not correct]”. But when you’re down things always seem worse than they are, and it feels like everyone is against you.
But what’s waiting for Elijah at the bottom?
The Tenderness of God
Look at v4-5: ‘He himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die… And he lay down and slept… And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.”’
And ever since the Fall, when the Lord clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden, to cover their shame, God has been tenderly meeting us in our brokenness.
He sends an angel to Elijah. And the angel has prepared a meal for him. Notice how physical this all is. And God’s willingness to inhabit, to incarnate himself in our worlds of sorrows nowhere shines brighter than in his willingness to take on flesh in Christ, and to come and share all the darkness of the bottom step.
And the angel touches Elijah. I remember as a boy, during the AIDS crisis, the media making much of Princess Diana touching AIDS patients and the powerful message that sent. But Jesus got there first, touching, identifying with the unclean and the leprous. And here God does it with burnt-out Elijah.
And twice the Lord questions him, v9 and 13, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Did you notice that he addresses him by name? In all that God has got going on; in all the superintending of the universe, in all the billions of people he cares for, he knows Elijah’s name. When I am pre-occupied, or tired, or just careless, I sometimes get my girls’ names wrong and it drives them mad. Your heavenly Father never does that. To him, Elijah and you are not lost in a crowd of billions. He sees you, he knows you, he knows your name, and he speaks tenderly to you.
But how does God’s tenderness in our brokenness, turn this around for Elijah? Because he doesn’t leave him in the darkness of the bottom, does he?
The Steps Back Up
And how God deals with Elijah has some stuff to teach us about staying or becoming again psychologically healthy in a time when the pressure is on.
1. Get Some Sleep
Verse 5, ‘And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.’ In fact, 3 times in this passage packed with action and doing we’re told Elijah rests. You simply can’t keep running on empty. So if things look dark, make things darker by turning off your screens, and going to bed and getting the rest you need.
2. Look Out For and Listen to Your Angels
In v2 we’re told that ‘Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah’ to threatened him. But the word translated angel in v5 is that same word, messenger. So Jezebel sends a messenger to threaten. God sends a messenger to comfort and encourage. And Elijah’s mental health depends on which one he’ll listen to.
Now, at the moment the world bombards you with messages that are enough to depress you. But do you listen to the messengers God sends? Now, maybe you think, ‘well I wish he would send a messenger, I wish he would come to me in my darkness.’ And you doubt he does. But what’s interesting is that we’re not told what form this angel took. Samson’s parents had a not-dissimilar experience to this, but it seems the angel of the Lord appeared pretty much as anyone else, until, that is, he went up in a flame. The writer to the Hebrews encourages his readers to be hospitable because by doing so, some have entertained angels unawares. But you can hardly entertain a bright burning seraph without knowing it, can you? I mean if you have one of those to Sunday lunch you’ll know it! That only makes sense if angels can look normal.
So the Lord may send some very normal looking people into your life to encourage you. He might even use your friends, your family as his messengers to minister his grace and comfort to you. So, are you listening to their voice?
And if things are good for you at the moment, ask yourself, who can you be God’s messenger to? Hebrews says, ‘Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’ (Heb 10:25). So things growing darker, the Day of Judgement drawing nearer, are not a reason to grow quieter, they’re a reason to encourage one another more and more. JRR Tolkein said that as Christians, ‘We fight the long defeat’, until the Lord returns in triumph, but as we do, we encourage.
And as you look out for your angels, and listen to them, look to Christ, the ultimate messenger. Who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as your ransom. And know that if God sent his Son for you, he won’t let you go now.
3. Remember the Physical Matters.
Verses 5-6: ‘And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank.’
Psychological problems are rarely just psychological, are they. You are not a brain in a vat. We’re embodied. And more than any other religion Christianity tells you that your body, your physicality matters. So make sure it’s not just rest you’re getting, but food and drink.
And as you see God’s messenger telling a broken man to eat and drink, think of Christ, sitting at table with his friends who would soon crumble in their own dark night, and telling them to ‘eat and drink’ and handing them, not cake and water, but bread and wine: ‘This is my body. This is my blood.’ And make use of the means of grace, the breaking of bread in communion, and feed on him in your heart.
But the angel doesn’t just feed him, does he. He sends him on a 40 day hike. Verses 7-8: ‘“Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.’
So, if this period of semi-confinement has you stuck at home again, and you’re down, make sure you’re getting some exercise. Literally, go on a hike. See the autumn colours, get into the sunshine, hear the birds sing. It’ll do your mental health far more good than more time in front of the screen.
But did you notice where God sends him?
4. Go to Sinai
Because Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai. Now given that God could have done all this in the wilderness near Beersheba, why send him all the way to Sinai? Because for Elijah, Sinai would have had huge resonances. This was where God met with Moses and gave him the Law. This was where God formed the people of Israel as his people. This is God’s way of making Elijah remember that God is a God who saves.
So if things seem dark to you, take a trip to Sinai. Remember, tell yourself, God’s works in history and your life. Read biographies. Remind yourself of his faithfulness, of those times when God has come through for you. And above all, go to the tomb on Easter Sunday, and the dawn that followed the darkness. And tell yourself God has lost none of his resurrection, turning-defeat-into-victory power.
5. Encounter God Again
Now, why does God ask the same question twice, when he already knew the answer? ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ And the answer must be, for Elijah’s sake. He’s holding up a mirror to Elijah, to get him to think about his answers in the light of God’s presence.
And God brings Elijah to the place where his problems are confronted by God’s greatness. To the place where Elijah encounters God again. And look how he does it: because God was not in the ‘great and strong wind [that] tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks’ (v11). And neither was he in the earthquake or the fire, even though Elijah had just seen God’s power in fire on Carmel. For broken and downcast Elijah, God came in ‘the sound of a low whisper.’ (v12).
And through prayer and the word of God, you and I can encounter God like that, as the word of God becomes a mirror held up to us. Why are you down? Why do you react the way you do? Why do you fear? Why do you cling to this idol? As you read his word and ask yourself, what does this tell me about God? What does it tell me about me? What does it tell me about Christ?
As we do that, we begin to preach the gospel to ourselves. We ask ourselves with the Psalmist, ‘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).
6. Know that God is in Control and Get Back in the Fight.
Verse 14, “I, even I only, am left.” But look at God’s response to that, v18: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” In other words, Elijah says, I’m totally alone. And God says, no you’re not, and I’m in control. And knowing that God is on the throne, however dark the days might seem, just has this power to lift your heart.
And did you notice that God doesn’t rebuke Elijah, he recommissions him. In JB Phillips translation he translates Paul saying in 2 Corinthians 4:9 ‘we are knocked down, but not knocked out.’ So what do you do? You get back up and get back in the fight. And God gives Elijah his next list of tasks to accomplish: ‘Elijah, we’re not done yet. Take courage, and get back out there.’
Where can you find that kind of courage to say in the fight? Well, look at Jesus. You see, he too went into the wilderness on a 40 day hike. But waiting for him at the end of it wasn’t a tender, restoring encounter with God like Elijah got. Jesus got satan, and all his temptations. But Christ conquered him there, and at the cross and at the grave. And because Christ has conquered, you are more than a conqueror in him.
So if you’re down at the moment, look to Christ your conqueror, and take courage. And as much, and as soon as you are able, get back into the fellowship of those who don’t bow the knee to Baal, into the company of the Lord’s people.