Bible studies in the life of Elijah
The downward slide - from faith to fear to depression
By Fraser Gordon
In the last message we saw Elijah's great victory on Mount Carmel and how he took on the false prophets of Baal. This time however we have quite a change in that Elijah’s’ massive victory turns to massive defeat. I am glad the Bible is the way it is because it always portrays the lives of the saints, warts and all. Elijah had had such an incredible victory on Mount Carmel only to be defeated by fear, anxiousness and panic. We’ll look at this in this study through the first three verses of 1 Kings chapter.19.
The story is told to Jezebel. Do you think she is going to be happy?
1 Kings 19:1 Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.
Last time we got up to the place where he defeated the false priests and God actually came through for Elijah and presented Himself to the people as their true God. It wasn't Baal any longer… it was Jehovah. He was the One who was in charge of the weather and He brought down fire. Then the rain came and Elijah ran before Ahab’s chariot back to the entrance of Jezreel which was 20 miles away. Elijah stopped there, but Ahab went in to see Jezebel. Now I don’t know whether Elijah had expected Ahab to be different because he had just witnessed that Baal was not the true god, or if he thought Ahab would work on his behalf with Jezebel and tell her that because of what had happened on Mount Carmel things had to change in the land. However, Ahab’s heart remained unchanged. Jezebel had stayed at home and had not seen the showdown at Mount Carmel so she would have been wondering what had happened. She would have seen the rain and probably thought that as Baal was the god of thunder, he had done this. Then Ahab came in and told her all that Elijah had done; how he had executed the prophets after the great challenge on Mount Carmel and their sacrifice to Baal in the afternoon. How they had cut themselves and blood flowed, but still nothing happened….there was only silence. But Elijah prayed one simple prayer and the fire fell. So Jezebel would have been incredibly incensed by this, especially with the prophets being slain.
She took it well... Not. Time to run?
1 Kings 19:2-3 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time." (3) And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
In verse 2, she sent a messenger to Elijah saying “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” She was not going to lie down and do nothing and I think that Elijah possibly underestimated her. This woman was like a caged tiger... she came out fighting and sent a message and a threat. She really had it within her power to take his life there and then but she didn't actually do that. Instead, she gave him one days’ notice of her intention to take his life. Now, I don't know about you but if you were going to take someone's life you probably wouldn't give them a day's notice so that they had the chance to escape. So what was her intent? I believe it was to instil fear into the heart of Elijah and it worked. When you get to verse 3 you really get to the crux of it all. We read ‘when he saw that he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba which belongs to Judah and left his servant there.” And when he saw that…what was the ‘That’ which he saw, do you think? I believe that Elijah in his heart believed that things were going to be different back at the palace, but when he saw Jezebels response he knew that they were not. Her response was totally negative. In Elijah’s mind the battle was already over. God had presented Himself to the people, and they were no longer divided between two opinions. Their hearts were coming back to Him. The false priests had been executed. God had shown up but there was this one woman who actually refused to submit which caused him to go from victory to defeat in one moment. Everything is about what we see and how we respond to it that matters. This is how it is for us, for we are no different from Elijah. James says that Elijah was a man just like we are and he had the same strengths and weaknesses. We are all the same. One day we can be on the mountaintop and then running for our life the next, and it can happen so quickly! Elijah was not ready for the things which he saw in Jezebels message, and this is what caused him to be so afraid. A good example of this from the Bible is Peter. He had enough faith to actually get out of the boat and walk on the water. It is amazing that he was able to look at Christ and say “Can I come to You?” and he actually got out of the boat, put his feet on the water and walked. But what does the Bible say then happened? ‘When he saw the wind, when he saw the waves, when he saw circumstances then instantly his gaze was taken off Christ and he began to sink’. This is what happened to Elijah. On Mount Carmel his gaze was upon God who brought the victory. But here in this instance his simple faith and trust in Jehovah seem to have gone out of the window. All he can see is a woman's threat and her intentions. The things which he thought had been changed had not. So he changes. I thought of the twelve spies Moses sent into the Promised Land also. Two returned and said that they knew that God was able to bring them into the land of Canaan, but ten of them, what did they see? They saw the fortified cities, and the giants…the sons of Anak. Here you have a negative response which dominated their thinking, so they were unable to move forward. Elijah was not able to look beyond Jezebels threats so we see that he arose and ran for his life. He bolted. He was dominated by panic and fear and he ran away as far as he could. These things are opposite to faith and when negative thoughts dominate us we are controlled by them. Has anyone ever had to run for their life? Has anyone ever been threatened by circumstances?
Running in fear...
I remember a time when I was 12 years old and I played soccer for the area I lived in. On one occasion we had to play an away game in another town and were billeted out with strangers. On the first day I was there my billet took me for a walk into the school grounds and I got into a fight with another boy. He rushed home to get his older brothers who were aged about 17 and 19. My friend said “You’d better run!” So I ran as fast as I could with these two guys chasing after me and I can still remember how the adrenalin kicked in. They were only about 200 hundred meters behind me. I ran down a street and into a shop jumped right over the counter and lay on the floor. The shop keeper took one look at my face and said Ooh! When the boys arrived at the shop they asked if the shopkeeper had seen a young kid. The shopkeeper told them “Yep - he went that way.” After they had gone I came out of the shop and went in the opposite direction – not knowing where I where I was or how to get back to the place I was billeted at. However my friend had rushed back and told his parents who came looking for me in their car. I had been wandering the streets for about half an hour when they found me…very scary!
So back to Elijah for he is filled with panic and fear and he is running. He is running for his life. He actually ran about 80 miles. It doesn't say how long it took him but that is about the distance from Jezreel to Beersheba in Judah. Fear is an interesting thing. Here are a couple of quotes that I read:
Fear is the little dark room where negatives are developed.
That is so true for us as well as Elijah. There are lots of things that we are afraid of. Everyone is afraid of different things. There are lots and lots of little things that we shouldn't be afraid of but actually are. Fear is that little dark room where all you see is the negatives which seem unfortunately to dominate us.
The other quote is:
To him who is dominated by fear everything rustles.
This is so true because when you are afraid, when you are bowing out of circumstances, everything seems to be heightened and to be a problem. It is in our DNA to respond to fear in this way. In the first instance when Adam and Eve fell, what was their initial response? They fled from God because they were afraid. He called to them “Where are you?” and they replied “We are afraid because we are naked.” Fear is all part of being fallen and sinful. If our worries, insecurities and anxieties are allowed to dominate us they will cause us to fall.
What are you focused on?
Just like Elijah you can be on the mountaintop one day and defeated the next. Peter had enough boldness to cut off a guy's ear when he tried to arrest Jesus, only to be absolutely scared very soon after by a little girl saying “Aren't you one of His disciples?”
Do you remember the story of Robinson Crusoe? It’s a good story, but he is a rat bag. He gets shipwrecked and a Bible is washed up as part of the wreckage. He reads it and then has a relationship with the Lord on the island... a really good steady relationship with the Lord. However, one day he sees a footprint in the sand, just one footprint, and he knows that he is not alone. He returns to his camp and boards it all up, and then when he has finished the barricading he can no longer sleep because he is worried about cannibalism. It goes back to what he is looking at! He saw one footprint and it changed everything for him. He failed to trust in God because he was worried or fearful that he wasn't alone.
I read that 40% of fear is apparently about things that never happen. 30% of our fears are in the past so shouldn't even really be considered. 12% are actually other peoples’ business and 10% is about sickness. This leaves 8% of things that are likely to happen. So fear is an interesting thing. I asked a friend of mine who had been in active service for the army about fear, because we all suffer from fears. I was thinking about the military and I asked if they did anything there to help people with the fears they experience. His reply was “No they don't, but what they do is make you practise and practise those things over and over so that when the event occurs it is just second nature to you.” “By repetition you gradually learn not to be afraid, then, when a situation arises your brain just kicks in and is not dominated by fear.” Then he said a very interesting thing to me. He said “Actually fear is not a negative thing but positive as it can heighten your senses and awareness of the things that you need at the moment.” That is a really good point, because if fear is allowed to dominate our thinking it will control the way we act and so becomes a real problem.
Fear leading to depression
So should Christians get depressed? The answer is no, they shouldn't, but yes they do! We have everything available to us in Christ but when we are not acting in faith and are dominated by fear and insecurities, it can lead to depression and you see here that Elijah, is in that state.
The bible doesn't really talk about him being physically worn out as well, but he probably was. He had had a confrontation with the prophets on Mount Carmel and then he runs 20 miles, gets a message from Jezebel and runs another 80 miles. So you have got to wonder because physically we need to take care of our bodies as they have a part to play in our whole make up. So I think that Elijah is possibly worn out and worn down and everything has reached a crisis point for him. He is consumed by his own failure and really quite depressed too so he says “Beam me up, I want out of here, I have had enough, I can't take any more.”
When you look at the Bible are there any other saints who have voiced the same thing? Is he alone in this? No, Jeremiah felt the same way and cursed the day that he was born and said “why wasn't I killed at birth?” He was hated by everyone except God. You could say that Jeremiah was very depressed at times but he was faithful to God. Moses was another in Numbers 11:10-15. He is burdened with the complaints of the people and he said to God “I just can't carry on, kill me now because the burden is too great for me.” The other person I thought of was Jonah. I think we need to have a look at him as his reaction is very similar.
Another depressed little prophet... an example from the life of Jonah
Jonah 4:1-9 “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.” (2) He prayed to the LORD and said, "Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. (3) "Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life." (4) The LORD said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?" (5) Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. (6) So the LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. (7) But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. (8) When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, Death is better to me than life. (9) Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death."
You can see from these verse that Jonah is really bitter... he is angry and really slacked off with God and he says “Look, I just want out, I have had enough, I don't want any more.” But God is really gracious in His dealings with him, and He deals with Elijah in the same way.
Was Elijah a little over-inflated in his opinion of himself?
1 Kings 19:4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers."
I think one of the biggest problems for Elijah comes at the end of verse 4 where he says “It is enough now Lord, take my life for I am no better than my fathers.” Whoever said he was? I think it is possible that Elijah may have got himself a little bit puffed up on Mount Carmel and is possibly a little over inflated. All the way through these chapters you read that Elijah considers himself to be the only true prophet that God has. He keeps saying that he is the only one that God has left, but as we shall see he wasn’t. I think possibly Elijah sees himself as somewhat indispensable to God but as one great saint on his death bed said, “Few men are important, none are necessary.”
That is very true; no-one is indispensable to God. And Elijah is saying here “Look, I am no better than my fathers.” Did he consider himself to be better? Part of his depression comes from the fact that he is consumed by his own failure and that Jezebel had really threatened him and she hadn't changed. He failed really in the things that he was strong in. When you look at Moses, he was the meekest man on the earth and yet he spoke some harsh and bitter words. Sometimes your strength is actually where you will fail. Abraham was a man of massive faith, yet his faith failed him many times, when he was down in Egypt and places like that. Same with Elijah, he was a courageous man, there is none more courageous than he was to take on a whole nation and the false prophets, yet he fled from the voice of one angry woman.
So when I look at this passage I see that his defeat stemmed from how he perceived what he saw. He was looking only at what Jezebel had written and not at The Lord the God of Israel. This then led to him being depressed. But God is incredibly gracious to him as He is to all of us, and as we will see next time God doesn't say “you are out of here.” He changes Elijah’s office but He is really gracious and provides what he needs, for his journey in God is not over. Failure has come into his walk with God but he is restored and is still His servant. However, things have changed and he is not reinstated to the position that he once had. That is an interesting point because as a child of God we are always forgiven but may not be reinstated with that calling that God has got for you. He will use someone else and as we follow the story on He actually uses Elisha to take Elijah's place. But God is still incredibly gracious. He provides for Elijah what he needs, but, as we shall see next time, He is after honesty from His servants. When you look at Elijah's responses you see that he still doesn’t understand what God is after!