Prophet on the Run

1 Kings 19:1-9

The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat the truth about its heroes. It gives us the whole story, the good news and the bad news at the same time. When the Bible describes the great heroes of the Old Testament and the New Testament, it tells us about the unvarnished truth about their struggles, their temptations, their difficulties and their defeats.

• When the Bible tells us about Noah who built an ark, it also tells us how Noah got drunk and was exposed before his sons.

• When the Bible tells us the story of Abraham, the great father of the faith, it also tells us how not once but twice he lied about his wife Sarah in order to save his own skin.

• When the Bible tells us about Jacob, it tells us not only about his great exploits of faith, it also tells us about how he cheated his brother Esau and how he cheated others during his lifetime.

• When the Bible tells us the story of Moses, it doesn’t just tell us about the parting of the Red Sea. It also tells us how Moses murdered those Egyptians and it also tells us how he struck the rock in defiance of the Lord’s command and was denied entrance into the Promised Land.

• When the Bible tells us about David, it doesn’t just tell us about his great victory over Goliath, it also tells us about his adultery and his murder of Uriah the Hittite.

• When the Bible tells us about Peter, it doesn’t just tell us about how he walked on water, it also tells us about that dark night in which he not once, not twice, but three times denied the Lord.

When the Bible paints the picture of its great heroes, it does not just use the light colors of victory and happiness and joy. It also paints the full portrait with the dark colors of sadness, difficulty, depression, defeat, sin and temptation. That is certainly the case when we come to the story of that great mountain man Elijah. When last we visited our hero, he had won his great victory over Ahab and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Immediately the story moves from his greatest victory to his most humiliating defeat. Without a pause we go from the top to the bottom. This is the story of Elijah’s personal breakdown. This is the story of Elijah’s battle with discouragement, despondency and depression. One writer calls this “Elijah’s nervous breakdown.” I do not doubt that that is a good description.

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat

And I remind you again of what has just happened. Elijah has been up on the mountain where he faced down the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah. It was 850 to one. The prophets of Baal danced around and moaned and groaned and put their long hair down on the ground, and they prophesied to Baal and they cut themselves and nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed a simple prayer asking God to demonstrate his mighty power that the hearts of the people might be turned back to the Lord. Immediately fire from heaven came down, consuming not only the offering on the altar but also licking up all the water that in the trench. The people of Israel bowed down and said, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” All the prophets of Baal were slaughtered. An enormous thunderstorm came in from the ocean, drenching the land and breaking the drought. The story ends with Ahab heading back to Jezreel to bring the bad news to Jezebel. But Elijah was so pumped up that he outran Ahab’s chariot. You would think that the next chapter might begin this way: “And Elijah rejoiced in the Lord his God. He made a sacrifice to give thanks to God, and all the people came to Elijah and he preached unto them the word of the Lord.” That’s not what happens. Elijah ends up a long way away from Jezreel. He heads south down to Beersheba. He heads south and west far out of the land of promise back down to Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai. Hundreds of miles away, he holes up in a cave and prays for God to take his life. This is the story of Elijah’s battle with depression.

We all understand that depression is a major problem in our time. Every year in America 9.5% of all adults are diagnosed with some degree of clinical depression. Experts tell us that one out of every four women will suffer from clinical depression at some point and one out of every ten men. Researchers attribute that difference in numbers to the fact that men are far less likely to admit their problems and far less likely to seek help. Depression costs American companies $44 billion a year. It is the leading cause of disability in America. We know that there are many causes for depression, and these things are often interrelated, including stress, difficulty in personal relationships, medical problems, poor diet, trauma, and genetic factors. Symptoms include persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness, irritability, and sometimes it may lead to thoughts of suicide. Researchers tell us that depression seems to be spread across all sectors of society. No one is exempt and it’s not a matter of I.Q., age or social class. Some of the greatest people in history have struggled with feelings of depression. Who said this?

I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful soul on earth. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die to be better.
Ever felt that way? “I must die to be better.” Abraham Lincoln felt that way because those were his words.

The Minister’s Fainting Fits

Many people consider Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous London pastor of the late 1800s, to be the greatest preacher since the Apostle Paul. Yet Spurgeon openly admitted that he often struggled with depression. It is a matter of record that Spurgeon, who lived with various physical maladies, on more than one occasion was so overcome with feelings of worthlessness, depression and despondency that he left his pulpit in London to go to a resort in France where he stayed for two or three months at a time. Often he spent days resting on the couch because he was so depressed, so fearful and so despondent. His marvelous book Lectures to My Students contains a chapter called The Minister’s Fainting Fits, which Warren Wiersbe says every pastor should read at least once a year because Spurgeon is so honest about the pressures that men and women in the ministry face. He begins his chapter this way:

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 may be 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, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, 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.
He goes on to say many helpful things in the chapter, but one point seems especially relevant. In giving a list of the times when we are most prone to depression, this is where he begins:
First among them I must mention the hour of great success. When at last a long-cherished desire is fulfilled, when God has been glorified greatly by our means, and a great triumph achieved, then we are apt to faint. It might be imagined that amid special favors our soul would soar to heights of ecstasy, and rejoice with joy unspeakable, but it is generally the reverse. The; Lord seldom exposes his warriors to the perils of exultation over victory; he knows that few of them can endure such a test, and therefore dashes their cup with bitterness.
He offers Elijah as proof of this point and concludes that in some measure, depression and discouragement after a great victory are part of the gracious discipline of God’s mercy lest we become proud and puffed up at our own accomplishments. It is in that light that we should study this ancient story for it has much to teach us today. The Bible records this story for all the benefit of all who serve the Lord. What happened to Spurgeon, what happened to Lincoln, what happened to Elijah will probably happen to all of us sooner or later.

I. His Condition Examined

The story begins this way: “Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ’May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them’” (vv. 1-2).You can just imagine with what eagerness Jezebel, that evil shrew, waited for the return of her husband Ahab. When she saw his chariot returning from Mount Carmel, she assumed it must be with good news. When he came into the palace at Jezreel, I am sure his face was ashen. No doubt she asked him happened on the mountain. Since it was raining across the land, I suppose that Jezebel took it as a sign that the prophets of Baal had won the day. Ahab gave her the bad news. “What happened to the prophets of Baal?” “They’re all dead.” “What happened on top of the mountain?” “The Lord God of Elijah won the day, and Baal was defeated.” Shakespeare said that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Now Jezebel is going to get even. She sends a messenger to Elijah with some ominous news: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow …” I think it’s the tomorrow part that got to Elijah. He was not a man who would have gotten easily flustered by a non-specific threat. Jezebel is saying, “Check your watch, man of God, because by this time tomorrow, I’m going to slice you and dice you the same way you did to the prophets of Baal.”

How does Elijah respond? First, he was gripped by fear and doubt (v. 3). Why be afraid of this woman? Elijah just saw God do a miracle. He helped slaughter the false prophets. Second, he reacted impulsively. The text says that he ran from Jezreel, which is in the northern part of Israel, not far from the Sea of Galiee, all the way to Beersheba, the far southern border of the nation. He ran south past Jerusalem, past Bethlehem, past Hebron. Elijah is so scared that he decides to run as far from Jezebel as he can get. That meant a change in climate because Jezreel is pasture land but in Beersheba he is in the desert. Third, he wanted to be alone. “When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there” (v. 3). That was a big mistake. The one thing he most needed was somebody to encourage him. Leaving his servant in Beersheba, he ventured into the desert a day’s journey, sat under a broom tree, and prayed that he might die. Elijah is on his way to the most remote place he can find. When you’re gripped by fear and doubt, you want to run away and be by yourself.

Fourth, he allowed himself to be controlled by dark thoughts. Ever felt this way? “Lord, I’ve had enough. Lord, this is it. Take my life. I am a total failure.” At this moment, mighty Elijah, God’s mountain man, is filled with self-pity. Having temporarily lost his faith in God and gripped by fear and doubt, he ran away from his problems. Overwhelmed by despair, he was filled with dark thoughts. This can happen to any of us. Have you ever taken one of those stress tests where they allot points for traumatic events in your life? If we gave Elijah that test, he would be off the charts. Before you get down on him, walk a mile in his shoes. He didn’t respond rightly to the pressure he faced, but how many of us would have done any better?

Can you think of anybody in the New Testament who temporarily lost his faith and his bearings? Can you think of anybody in prison who couldn’t remember what he had known earlier to be true? Consider John the Baptist. When he saw Jesus walking toward him, he cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Later Herod had John put into prison where he was ultimately behead. Those of us who have never been behind bars don’t understand what prison is like. There is no place on earth darker and more demoralizing than a prison cell. We can’t imagine how dehumanizing it is. I know just a bit about that because we’ve received thousands of letters from prisoners who read one of my books and wrote to say thank you. I read those letters and the stories they tell about prison life are just unbelievable. You can watch all the prison movies you want and when the movie is over, you can go to your kitchen and make a snack. You can get in your car and drive wherever you like. But those men and woman are locked up, having lost their freedom for years, sometimes for life. Prison is a disorienting experience. And it’s no wonder that John the Baptist temporarily lost his spiritual bearings and sent the messengers to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3) Now why do I bring up John the Baptist? Because when Jesus wanted to praise John the Baptist, he compared him to Elijah. “He is the Elijah who was to come” (Matthew 11:14). What Elijah was in the Old Testament, John the Baptist was in the New Testament. And both men struggled with depression and doubts. I believe that those whom God calls to do great, bold exploits are often the ones who are most prone to inner struggles with despondency and depression. In public John the Baptist is bold as a lion, yet put him in prison and he begins to lose his faith. Now here’s Elijah, great man of God, spiraling, spiraling downward, completely controlled by dark thoughts, filled with self-pity.

II. His Condition Diagnosed

If you study the biblical record, it seems clear that three things have happened to Elijah to bring him to this breaking point. These three things are very understandable, they go together, and they can happen to any of us at any time.

First, he was overstrained mentally. It is possible to be under so much pressure for such a long period of time that the spring of life is wound so tightly that eventually it must break. Consider Elijah’s career as a prophet. From the mountains of Gilead to the king’s palace to the brook to the widow’s home to the showdown on Mt. Carmel, it’s been one crisis after another. The late Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was fond of saying “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Everyone has a limit. You’ve got your limit, and I’ve got mine. It’s a good thing to realize when you’ve come to the end, and it’s a good thing to realize that before you get to the end.

You are not as smart as you think you are, and neither am I.

You are not as clever as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as resourceful as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as good under pressure as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as strong as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as wise as you think you are, and neither am I.

The mightiest oak tree in the forest can be easily brought down if you hit it with a tiny ax at just the right place. Elijah was overstrained mentally. He had pushed himself until he could push no longer.

Second, he was exhausted physically. At one point in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples to “Come apart and rest for awhile” (Mark 6:31 KJV). Vance Havner was fond of saying, “If we do not come apart and rest awhile, we will simply come apart.” There is a time when you need to get up and go to work, and there is a time when you need to lay down and take a nap. Sometimes the best thing we can do for the Lord is to take a vacation. Play tennis. Ride your bike. Watch a football game. Knit a sweater. Have a date with your sweetheart. Play with your grandchildren. Eat an ice cream cone. Take an evening, make some popcorn, sit on the couch and watch a video. There are times when God’s work demands strenuous action. And there is a time when you need to sit in the recliner, crank it back, get a bowl of Cheetos and a Coke, pick up the remote control, and watch ESPN for a while. There is a time to be active and busy, and there is a time to relax. There is a time to write, a time to work, a time to preach, and there is a time to put on your helmet and go ride your bicycle. Solomon reminded us in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything under the sun.

A time for war and a time for peace.

A time to sow and a time to reap.

A time to weep and a time to laugh.

A time to be born and a time to die.

“To everything there is a season.” God ordains every season of life, including the times of hard work and the times when we must rest. In our twenty-first century world, the reward tends to go to those who burn themselves out the quickest.

Easily Distracted

Several years ago as I thought about the church I pastored in Oak Park for sixteen years, I made the following five observations about the congregation:

1) Down deep the people of Calvary truly love the Lord. There is no question about that. If you got to know them personally, as I did for many years, you soon learned that their love for the Lord was genuine and heartfelt.

2) They are willing to serve the Lord. Like every church, we always had a long list of vacancies in our various ministries, and every year we scrambled at the end of the summer to find enough teachers and helpers to begin the fall program. But every year, without fail, the Lord touched the hearts of our people and they responded magnificently. I found that if you presented the right opportunity in the right way, the people were not unwilling to serve. Someone always stepped forward.

3) Almost everyone in the church is overcommitted. We all know about the 80/20 rule, which says that 20% of the people do 80% of the work and 80% of the people do 20% of the work. I’m sure there is some truth to that. And really, it’s always true that an inner core of people in every congregation rise up and do the heavy lifting that must be done to move the Lord’s work forward. But I’m not speaking about that at this point. I discovered that almost everyone at Calvary is overcommitted at home, on the job, in the neighborhood, in the community, in their families, in their extended families, in their church and outside the church. Everyone is busy all the time.

4) Almost everyone is overstressed. This is the natural result of being very busy and overcommitted. The demands of life create heavy burdens that wear you down after a while.

5) People are easily distracted. This is probably true of most churches, especially churches in metropolitan areas. People love the Lord, they are willing to serve, they are very busy and thus overcommitted. One of the marks of an overstressed life is that you cannot keep your mind on anything for more than five minutes. People sometimes ask why I move around so much when I preach. One answer is that I keep moving to keep people’s attention. We live in an overcommitted, overstressed, over-busy generation where people are easily distracted. I discovered that it was easy for us to get the attention of people in the congregation, but it was almost impossible to hold that attention for very long. We would announce some great new initiative, and for fifteen minutes it’s like the second coming of Pentecost, then fifteen minutes later people had forgotten what we had told them. That’s a mark of an overstressed generation. If you live in a big city, that’s just the way it is. And it’s not that much different in small towns. We’ve got cable TV, high speed Internet, instant messaging, video ipods, and satellite radio with 100 channels so you can listen to your favorite station coast to coast. We live in an age of communications overload. Today when we teach young men how to preach, we tell them to be sure and change the subject every five minutes because that’s the only way to hold people’s attention. It wasn’t that way fifty years ago. We communicate in bite-sized chunks because we are an easily distracted generation.

Third, Elijah was out of touch spiritually. Verse 3 says that “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” The Hebrew text contains a phrase that disappears in some modern translation. The first phrase of verse 3 literally reads, “And when he saw.” That’s his fundamental problem. His mind is overstressed. His body is physically exhausted. And now his eyes are off the Lord and they’re on his circumstances. That’s what happens when you are under enormous mental stress, when you are physically exhausted, when you’ve been running on Red Bull and four hours of sleep a night, and you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. No wonder Elijah gets scared. He’s been under enormous pressure for so long that he can’t think clearly. Give him three nights of good sleep and Jezebel won’t bother him so much. When you have been under stress for a long time, you don’t think clearly, and you make bad decisions that gets you in trouble. That’s why the little phrase in verse 3 is so important: “And when he saw.” When he was on the mountain, all he could see was God. The prophets of Baal didn’t bother him at all. The circumstances didn’t matter. It was Elijah and God. But now in his state of emotional exhaustion, he sees Jezebel, he hears Jezebel, and where normally he would have stood his ground, he turns pale, runs for cover, keeps on running, and doesn’t stop till he ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai hundreds of miles away.

So this is where we will leave the mighty prophet of God for the moment. He cowers in a cave, wishing to die, feeling utterly alone, lost in his own despair. But as we will see next time, God is not through with his servant yet. Though he ran as far and as far as he could, Elijah could not outrun the Lord. God has much more work for him to do so Elijah can’t stay in the cave forever. Though he made many mistakes, he is still God’s man.

Stay tuned. God is about to turn Elijah’s life around and use him again.

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